When Baltimore native Anna Deavere Smith was creating "Fires in the Mirror," her acclaimed show about tensions between blacks and Jews in Brooklyn, N.Y., she was reminded of "the power of my experience as a young woman at Western High School, meeting Jewish women and having the opportunity to meet their parents and particularly their grandparents."
So her interviews with the people in Brooklyn's Crown Heights section "had a lot of resonance for me," she explains. "Even though I was talking about difficult things, something about it was very comfortable."
The "difficult things" concern the Crown Heights riots that broke out in August 1991, after a 7-year-old black boy was accidentally killed by a runaway car in the motorcade of a Hasidic rabbi. Three hours later, a Jewish scholar visiting from Australia was stabbed to death in apparent retaliation.
For her one-woman show, "Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities," Smith interviewed 50 participants in and observers of the riots. On stage, she transforms herself into about half of those people -- ranging from Hasidic housewives to the Rev. Al Sharpton -- using verbatim transcripts of the interviews.
This chameleon-like tour de force, which she accomplishes with the aid of only a few props, was hailed by the New York Times as "the most compelling and sophisticated view of urban racial and class conflict, up to date to this week, that one could hope to encounter in a swift 90 minutes."
Since the 1992 New York debut of the show -- which won the the Obie Award and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist -- Smith has taken it across the country and from London to Melbourne, Australia.
On Tuesday, "Fires in the Mirror" begins a two-week run as part of Center Stage's Off Center series. It will be Smith's first professional performance in her hometown.
"Fires" is part of a project this 44-year-old actress, writer and Stanford University professor has been working on for more than a dozen years called "On the Road: A Search for American Character." The latest installment, "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," was based on the riots that followed the acquittal of four police officers accused of beating Rodney King. A 1993 Tony nominee, "Twilight" led Newsweek to describe Smith as "the most exciting individual in American theater right now."
Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis says she chose to bring "Fires" here, however, because it has "much bigger reverberations for our community" -- a feeling that will be explored in discussions after several performances.
Smith's sense of these reverberations dates back to the late 1960s, when her middle-class family moved from West Baltimore to the then-mixed black-Jewish neighborhood of Forest Park. Though she says Forest Park was "nothing like Crown Heights," with its Hasidic and Caribbean populations, she acknowledges that "my journey in 'Fires in the Mirror' had a lot to do with trying to reclaim the black-Jewish experience I'd had as a young woman in Baltimore."
Asked if she has found a difference between black-Jewish relations and black-white relations, she responds: "To some extent I think the Jewish-black relationship is the theater for race relations in America. It expresses a lot about race relations because other groups don't come forward. . . . We tend to be the two having the dialogue. We're basically doing the work for everyone else."
One of Smith's Jewish friends from her youth was Gail Castleman, a classmate at both Garrison Junior High and Western High School. "Neither of us looked at each other as a black-white issue. We were buddies," says Castleman, now a hearings and regulations coordinator for the Maryland State Department of the Environment. "We grew up together. We lived a block away. I found her totally captivating as a kid."
After school, she recalls, Smith would often come to her house, where she could see Castleman's step-grandmother speaking Yiddish and making gefilte fish from scratch. "Anna was absorbing it all," Castleman says.
She also remembers Smith doing impersonations, like the ones in her shows, when they were at school together. "It's kind of deja vu because she used to do it all the time," she says. "She was the theater maven. She could imitate anybody and do anything."
For her part, Smith -- the oldest of five children -- believes some of her theatrical impulses stem from her parents, even though neither worked in theater professionally. Her mother is a retired elementary school principal, and her father, Deaver Y. Smith Jr., who died in April, was a retired insurance claims adjuster and also ran the coffee and tea business founded by her grandfather in 1906.
Smith was inspired by her mother's storytelling (which she learned to imitate even before she could read) and her father's "incredible love of conversation" and fascination with what she calls "unanswerable questions."
"In the eulogy for him," she says, "the preacher gave many examples of my father challenging him with unanswerable questions, and I think the unanswerable question is the source of drama."
Her mother, who still lives in Forest Park, says Anna always "had a talent that probably she was not aware of." This led her to be cast in school plays, and also on television broadcasts at school, including a rare integrated program that featured students studying French at what was then the all-white Montebello Elementary School and at Anna's all-black James Mosher Elementary.
"She was always very bright and very introspective," Mrs. Smith says of her oldest daughter, who completed elementary school in five years and graduated at 16 from Western High School. (Western is honoring her in this afternoon's commencement ceremonies.)
While in the area, Smith expects to meet with the staff at Arena Stage in Washington, where she will create a new work based on "the historic relationship of the press with the presidency." An extension of her "On the Road" series, it is funded by a $100,000 grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts and Theatre Communications Group. She will be in residence at Arena for a total of six months, spread over the next two years. Although Smith doesn't know exactly what form the piece will take, she says it will probably be performed by other actors.
bTC Smith got a glimpse -- albeit fictional -- of the relationship between the president and the press in a movie she just completed filming, "An American President," in which she plays a White House press secretary. Directed by Rob Reiner and starring Michael Douglas, "An American President" features her in her largest film role to date. (She has also played small parts in "Philadelphia" and "Dave.")
In addition, Smith is writing her first original screenplay, which is about sequestered juries and will be directed by Lili Zanuck for Columbia Pictures. Part of her research took her to the O. J. Simpson trial, and she has used some of the trial transcripts as a teaching tool at Stanford, where she is the Ann O'Day Maples Professor of the Arts.
Her students, she explains, created a performance piece by juxtaposing segments of the transcript with dance and music.
Of all her recent activities, the one that seems to have left the strongest impression was her trip to South Africa last fall at the invitation of Barney Simon, the white, Jewish artistic director of the Market Theatre, which was a major artistic force in the anti-apartheid movement.
"I felt in meeting Barney that I met a very advanced version of a part of me -- a little different from a mentor," she says. "I feel maybe we're twins, and he's the one that came out a little bit bigger and came out first. But I have a desire to catch up with my twin."
Eventually, she hopes, they will work together on "a tangible collaboration."
In the meantime, Smith feels she learned something about herself in South Africa: "I learned . . . that I'm very afraid of the power of white people and that I'm very afraid of the struggle. Sometimes, even though we conquer things on a certain level, the fear is still there."
This seems an unexpected revelation from a theater artist whose recent scripts have dealt with racial problems. But, as Smith would be the first to admit, confronting problems and solving them are two different things. She says that in post-play discussions the most frequent questions asked are: "Where's the hope?" and "How can we heal?"
Her response? "I think I know a little more now, after the time I've been doing 'Fires in the Mirror' and 'Twilight: Los Angeles,' about where the hope is. I think the hope lies in the acceptance that we don't have a perfect conversation, but it's important to begin to continue to talk," Smith says. "We have to accept more, and we need to concern ourselves less with getting beyond things and more with going through them."
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH
What: "Fires in the Mirror"
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: June 13-25. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays
Call: (410) 332-0033
* Tuesday -- WJHU-FM talk-show host Marc Steiner will broadcast a live discussion from the theater featuring Smith, Rep. Kweisi Mfume and Rep. Ben Cardin.
* Thursday -- Discussion led by Smith and Michael S. Miller, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council and one of the characters in "Fires."
* Wednesday -- 8 p.m., WBAL-TV, Channel 11, will broadcast an hourlong special with Smith and host Ron Shapiro on the future of race relations in Baltimore.