Play Review: Fires in the Mirror
As many of you know, students were assigned to read Anna Deavere Smith’s (“Smith”) Fires in the Mirror, which has replaced this year’s traditional school play. Smith has published a collection of more than two dozen interviews as she ventures to provide a brilliant exploration of the emotions revolving around the Crown Heights conflict. Compiling a variety of perspectives, Smith explores perceptions of Black and Jewish relations with the police, government, and the white majority in the U.S. Seeking to examine art as a reflection of society, Smith maintains that art exists as a kind of social mirror, while acknowledging that mirrors can distort. Nevertheless, this reflection is an interrogation concerning the civil unrest or the fire of an event. Thus, her art is labeled as a reflection of this tension.
It is quite unfortunate that the play does the exact opposite of this. Fires in the Mirror features two groups that share a history of oppression, though the play has yet to inspire the unity it sought to bring forth. Through the words of 26 people, Smith investigates why these individuals signaled their identities and how barriers between groups can be breached. "My sense is that American character lives not in one place or the other," Smith writes in her introduction to the play, "but in the gaps between the places, and in our struggle to be together in our differences." This negativity is intensified by the more potent influence upon the majority by the minority of outright bigots and anti-Semites, rather than by voices calling for understanding. Additionally, Smith’s selective portrayal of Jews corresponds to no genuine representation of what makes Judaism beautiful. Whether it's alluding to orthodox women's wigs or a stereo malfunction on Shabbos, the play ultimately fails to focus on Jewish practices’ true sanctity and unknown intimacy. While intended to render an understanding of Judaism, Smith's stories are stripped of all meaningful context, allowing them to be easily misconstrued.
Meanwhile, the monologues revolving around the Black plight are prejudiced accounts of several radical figures. In Seven Verses, Minister Conrad Mohammed theorizes that blacks are G-d's "chosen people," expressing his views on blacks’ suffering at white people’s hands. He bluntly remarks that the Holocaust "in no way compares with the slavery of our people." There exists no absolute metric to compare individual pain, suffering, or difficulties to one another. Yes, each was horrible in its own right, but comparing them is hardly appropriate. This monologue foolishly undermines the tragedies European Jews faced, and it certainly does not attempt to bridge the Jewish and black experiences. Instead, this dynamic rewards us with a consolation prize in the knowledge that our trials and sufferings in the trenches of life are indeed worse than others. Despite its unfortunate attempts, there are no remarkable ways in which Fires in the Mirror draws any significant parallels to black people and Jewish people’s histories.
On the contrary, the racism directed towards Blacks is especially conveyed through their perspectives. In an anonymous African-American Crown Heights resident's monologue, "Bad Boy," the author insists that young black men are either athletes, rappers, robbers, or killers. He argues that the sixteen-year-old athlete accused of killing Yankel Rosenbaum is innocent. While there are several accounts of white people expressing racist attitudes toward Blacks, it is especially telling how Black people belittle themselves. In believing that the societal odds are overwhelmingly against them, people like this young "Bad Boy" adopt a mode of passivity and victimology. Victimology is nothing but an excuse, and being a "bad boy" often takes precedence over intellectual acumen. To progress as a people, one must turn away from victimhood and adopt a more proactive approach to life.
By showing many different points of view and opinions on the issue of the riot, the play highlights that there are not just two sides, divided by race, but rather many different individual attitudes, emotions, and opinions. While Fires in the Mirror collected accounts from such people, it essentially lacked the sense of unity, peace, and love for which it claims to stand.