Talking through the pain of racial dissonance


A playwright, two members of Congress and more than 500 theatergoers sat in the dark grappling with the issue of distrust between Jews and African-Americans.

There were elderly businessmen and drama students, elementary school teachers from Baltimore County and HIV-prevention counselors from the city. There were rabbis, lawyers, ministers and musicians.

They had come to Center Stage Tuesday night to watch Baltimore native Anna Deavere Smith's one-woman play about the 1991 riots in New York City's Crown Heights neighborhood, a clash between African-Americans and Orthodox Jews.

In the end, the gathering became the rarest of occasions: People talked freely about prejudice and race.

The audience stayed after the show to take part in a question-and-answer session with Ms. Smith and members of Congress Ben Cardin and Kweisi Mfume. Led by WJHU talk show host Marc Steiner, the informal discussion gave each person a chance to speak about the issues -- whether provocative, painful or inspiring -- raised by Ms. Smith's compelling production. Anyone who had a comment or question simply raised his hand, then spoke. No names were given, no formal introductions made.

"We don't spend enough time listening to each other's pain," said one woman.

"This is not a black-Jewish problem. This is an American problem," said another.

Ms. Smith, 44, is a Stanford University drama professor and creator of the 90-minute play, "Fires in the Mirror," which is based on interviews with a variety of people whose lives were touched by the Crown Heights events. Against a plain black backdrop and using few props, Ms. Smith transforms herself into 26 different characters and, using their own words, tells this story -- from many viewpoints:

On Aug. 19, 1991, a Hasidic man driving a car accidentally struck and killed a 7-year-old African-American boy on a crowded city street. Three hours later, a 29-year-old Hasidic man was stabbed to death a few blocks away by a crowd of angry African-American youths.

These two events triggered three days of fires, bottle-throwing and racial violence.

After watching the play, many audience members were reminded of pain they'd endured because of the intolerance and suspicion between races.

A physician, who in 1991 was caring for both Hasidic and black AIDS patients in Crown Heights, said that on several occasions police had searched her purse simply because she was an African-American.

"I was stopped by the police!" she said. "But my patients didn't notice my race, they saw the commonality of humanity and of the care that I gave."

Another participant said that as a Baltimore County social worker she saw constant reminders that Americans don't listen to each other. "People are not willing to spend the time to get past the pain and to realize that we all have pain. We all have issues," she said.

One woman, who said she'd grown up in Crown Heights "when it was integrated," worried that racial tension in Baltimore was increasing.

"What I am fearful about is that the same polarization that is [in Crown Heights] is starting to happen here," she said. "We're seeing a lot of that in the mayoral races right now."

She called upon politicians to lead the way to better racial understanding, to which Mr. Mfume responded that individuals also have a responsibility to work toward better understanding between races.

"Let me suggest to you -- and remind myself -- that leadership comes from the bottom up," he said. "If we wait for our leaders, including [the members of Congress present], then we are doing ourselves a disservice."

During the 45-minute discussion, many participants had on their minds the recent Supreme Court decision that tightened the rules for affirmative action. Both Mr. Cardin and Mr. Mfume called the ruling disappointing.

It "increased the threshold and called for stricter scrutiny of what qualifies for affirmative action," said Mr. Mfume. "I don't like the opinion."

Predicting that the court's decision will make it harder for Congress to resolve problems, Mr. Cardin said, "I believe the federal government has a role to play in helping us develop a diverse society in which many cultures and races have a part."

A few people said they felt that both Jewish and African-American communities are too quick to take offense at apparent slights committed by the other. One man drew dTC applause when he added, "There's a fine line between what's anti-Semitic and what is teaching ourselves to love ourselves."

Throughout the discussion there were also moments of hope. Many audience members thanked Ms. Smith and called her brave for tackling such a sensitive topic. "She had a lot of courage, a lot of depth to do this," said Luana Clark, a Baltimore substance-abuse and HIV-prevention counselor. "And it's interesting that it took a woman to be the one to come forth with the talent to make others aware of what should be obvious."

"I thought it helped to discuss these issues. It was an education -- tonight was an educational process," said Peabody Institute student Jason Knight. "These things are not talked about a lot."

Ms. Smith said that each time she performs the play she, too, learns more about the origins of racial misunderstanding. "The work that I am doing is not about congratulations or applause. It's about working with dialog and communication."

Anna Deavere Smith's "Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities" is playing at Center Stage through June 25. Call (410) 332-0033 for details.

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