Fires In The Mirror Summary

Anna Deavere Smith

Fires In The Mirror

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Fires In The Mirror Summary

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Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities, by Anna Deavere Smith,is a four-act play that deals with the tension between the black and Jewish communities in Brooklyn and with the Crown Heights riots that took place in August 1991. Each act is named after the theme it represents. In the first act, titled “Identity,” Ntozake Shange talks about feeling part of one’s surroundings, while at the same time, feeling apart from them. In the second scene, an anonymous Lubavitcher woman talks about the Shabbas when a black child came into her house to turn off her family’s radio. Shabbas is the Jewish holy day; a Lubavitcher is a member of a Hasidic community that was founded by Rabbi Shneour Zalman in the 1700s. Finally, George C. Wolfe presents his own perspective on identity—particularly racial identities—when he purports that blackness and whiteness have an exclusive existence.

Act two of Fires in the Mirror is titled “Mirrors, Hair, Race, and Rhythm.” In the first section of this act, Aaron M. Bernstein talks about the role of mirrors in science and literature. Both, he says, are associated with distortion. He talks about how physicists use mirrors to make telescopes—the larger the mirror, the smaller the “circle of confusion.”

The second part of act two returns to racial identity, as an anonymous black girl discusses the ways that Hispanic and black students at her school—Crown Heights junior high—think about race, and how their actions reflect their racial identities. Next, Reverend Al Sharpton discusses straightening his hair in an attempt to assimilate with white culture in the 1950s. Sharpton had promised James Brown that he would straighten his hair. This section concludes with a discussion of the Lubavitch practice of wearing wigs by Rivkah Siegal.

Act two continues with Angela Davis, who discusses race and its effect on blacks and women in the 1960s. She also talks about the changes in American society since that decade. This act closes with Monique “Big Mo” Matthews, who focuses on rap and attitudes toward women—especially in hip-hop culture.

Act three of Fires in the Mirror is titled “Seven Verses.” It begins with Professor Leonard Jeffries. Jeffries talks about his involvement in, and work on, the book Roots, and the subsequent television series. Roots is about the slave trade. Next, Letty Cottin Pogrebin provides a discussion of the clash between blacks and Jews. Letty says that blacks attack Jews because the latter are the sole racial group that treats blacks as fully human. Minister Conrad Mohammed follows Letty, and he explains his view that because blacks are God’s chosen people, they suffer more at the hands of whites than Jews have.

Letty returns to share a story about how her mother’s cousin survived the Holocaust by participating in a Nazi gassing. Act three is closed out by Robert Sherman, who argues that race relations cannot be understood via the English language, because it’s insufficient for describing those same relations.

The fourth and final act of Fires in the Mirror is titled “Crown Heights, Brooklyn, August 1991.” It begins with Rabbi Joseph Spielman providing his account of what happened when Gavin Cato was killed and Yankel Rosenbaum was stabbed. He maintains that the black community, wanting to start anti-Semitic riots, lied about those events. In contrast to Rabbi Joseph Spielman is Reverend Canon Doctor Heron Sam, whose resentment toward the Lubavitcher Grand Rebbe is clear. He claims that the Grand Rebbe’s people were reckless, and that the death of Gavin Cato was not a cause of concern to them. Next, the audience receives an account from an anonymous Crown Heights man, who says that the police neither arrest Jews nor offer blacks justice. This first section of the final act ends with Michael S. Miller’s assertion that the Crown Heights black community is anti-Semitic.

Next, Henry Rice explains what his role was in those events. He was trying to stop blacks from inciting violence—that’s when the police hit him and handcuffed him. When he was released, Rice says he was threatened by a black man. Next, Norman Rosenbaum speaks about his brother’s stabbing and the injustice of it. He also describes how he felt when he heard that his brother had been murdered.

A sixteen-year-old boy had been blamed for Yankel Rosenbaum’s murder, and in the next section, an anonymous man touts the boy’s innocence, based on the fact that the boy was an athlete. According to the anonymous man, that means he would not have killed anyone. This is followed by Sonny Carson’s story about leading the young black community against white power via activism.

Integration, according to Rabbi Shea Hecht, will not mend the racial divide. Reverend Al Sharpton returns to talk about his decision to go to Israel in order to pursue legal action against the driver who killed Gavin Cato. Richard Green speaks next about how there aren’t enough role models for black youths in Crown Heights, and the rage that is subsequently rampant in the community.

The last section of the final act of Fires in the Mirror starts with Roslyn Malamud. Roslyn says that the blacks who rioted were not her neighbors. She places the blame at the feet of the local police department as well as the leaders of the black community. Reuven Ostrov talks about how Jews are frightened because there are people who hate them everywhere. At the end of the play, Carmel Cato talks about when he saw his son die and how he resents Jews who hold power in the community.