Anna Deavere Smith

Fires In The Mirror

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Fires In The Mirror Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 57-page guide for “Fires In The Mirror” by Anna Deavere Smith includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 7 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Race and Identity.

Plot Summary

Fires in the Mirror is a play written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith that concerns the Crown Heights Riots in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in August of 1991. This play is one of the first in a genre known as verbatim theatre, as the speech in the play was taken, verbatim, from interviews concerning a specific incident or subject. In this case, the incident(s) in question is/are the history concerning the Crown Heights Riots, and the play’s verse is a series of monologues transcribed from interviews that Smith conducted shortly after the riots. The play blends nonfiction and screenwriting, as it is comprised of verse-monologues from entirely real figures. Part of Smith’s larger project, known as On the Road: A Search for the American Character, this play interrogates the racial tensions between the Jewish and black communities within the Brooklyn area known as Crown Heights.

This play deeply involves its historical context, as it would have not occurred without the August 1991 Crown Heights incidents. In August 1991, part of a Jewish motorcade ran up and onto a sidewalk, killing a young black boy. A few hours later, a group of young black men accosted an unaffiliated Jewish man, who ended up getting stabbed and dying a few hours later. Crown Heights erupted in rioting, with violence being perpetrated on both sides, although the police arrested predominantly black young men. Neither side felt like they received justice, as the murderer of the young black boy fled to Israel and the murderer of the Jewish man was never sent to jail. It is important to note that the tensions between the Jewish community—which in Crown Heights is comprised of Hasidic Lubavitchers—and the black community, many of whom were Afro-Caribbean immigrants, had been long-brewing, as many members of the black community believed that the Lubavitchers received preferential treatment from the government and police.

It is also important to note that this play—and the Crown Heights incidents—take place within a larger socio-historical context of racial tensions in America. The interviews were taken soon after the tragedy, which occurred between the beating of Rodney King by police officers in March 1991 and the 1992 LA Riots, which resulted from the police officers’ acquittal. The play was written in 1992 and premiered in New York City while the LA Riots were taking place in protest of the LAPD’s discriminatory and often-violent practices.

The people Smith interviewed for the play are a mix of political celebrities, religious leaders, intellectuals, and laypeople, although she designed her play to be performed by a single person—herself. The play consists of 29 monologues from 26 different people who search for meaning—especially concerning identity—in the midst of social unrest. Political celebrity Reverend Al Sharpton, author and social activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin, and Norman Rosenbaum—the brother of the slain Jewish man—are the only three characters with two different scenes. Within the play itself, Smith impersonates each of the characters, creating unity among the many voices of these hybrid interview-scenes.

The play is divided into seven thematic sections/acts. The first section, “Identity,” interrogates how personal identity is different from communal identity, and also queries the conflation between the two. The second section, “Mirrors,” discusses how mirrors distort things, both in terms of science and in terms of literature. The third section, “Hair,”discusses the conflation of race and appearance by interrogating the customs of black and Jewish communities regarding their hair. In the fourth section, “Race,” Angela Davis speaks to the history of American segregation between blacks and whites, addressing the need for unity. In “Rhythm,” the fifth section, LA rapper Matthews defines rap and the difficulties associated with being a female rapper, discussing how it is necessary for women to overcome objectification. In the sixth section, “Seven Verses,” the points of view oscillate between discussions of American oppression faced by the black community and historical oppression faced by the Jewish community, concluding with a monologue about the problematic nature of words like “bias” and “discrimination,”which fail to understand the trauma of oppression. The final section, “Crown Heights, Brooklyn, August 1991,”explains the events surrounding the unrest. This section shows viewpoints of both sides, in which each side blames the other, demonstrating the relativity of the truth.

At its core, the play seeks to examine art as a reflection of society; Smith believes that art exists as a kind of social mirror, though she acknowledges that mirrors can distort. However, she believes that through this reflection, the tension and civil unrest—or the fire—of an event can be interrogated. Thus, her art is labeled as a reflection of this tension.

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