One third of the way into "Fires in the Mirror," Anna Deavere Smith re-creates these words of Angela Davis: "We have to find )) ways of coming together in a different way."
It's one of the most cogent statements of the thesis of this unusual, spellbinding work, currently playing a two-week engagement as part of Center Stage's Off Center series. Subtitled "Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities," Smith's one-woman show focuses on the riots that erupted in Crown Heights in August 1991 after a 7-year-old black boy was accidentally killed by a car in the motorcade of a Hasidic rabbi; three hours later a Hasidic scholar visiting from Australia was stabbed to death in apparent retaliation.
To create "Fires," Smith -- a Baltimore native giving her first professional performance in her hometown -- interviewed 50 people in and around the riots. On stage, with only the slightest changes in costumes and props, she assumes the personae of more than half of those people, using verbatim transcripts as her text.
As she metamorphoses from a rabbi to the Rev. Al Sharpton to the director of the Crown Heights Youth Collective to a Hasidic housewife, she embodies an entire community. And, since the ** issue inflaming that community is race -- an issue that has been central to this country since its founding -- she also creates a microcosm of the nation.
The way she does this is as fascinating as her characters' revelations (from the metaphorical resonance of a physicist explaining how flaws in the reflecting mirror of a telescope can create "a circle of confusion," to an angry black teen-ager whose proof of a Jewish conspiracy is that New York police cars are the same colors as the Israeli flag). Dressed in navy slacks and a white shirt, and wearing her hair pulled back in a ponytail, Smith doesn't mimic voices so much as she reproduces the speech patterns and body language of the interviewees, who are identified by titles projected on the back wall of the set.
One moment she's a fast-talking, anonymous 13-year-old girl; the next moment, she's Sharpton -- a transformation accomplished by spinning around in her chair, placing a medallion around her neck, leaning back, lowering her voice and raising the volume. One of her smallest costume changes consists merely of slipping on a wedding band to portray Robert Sherman, of the New York City Commission on Human Rights. (Sherman will join her in a post-play discussion at Center Stage on June 22.) So adept is Smith at these chameleon-like changes, she could probably make them just as convincingly without the added clues of a yarmulke here or a minister's collar there.
Like "Rashomon," Smith's script presents conflicting accounts of the events that precipitated the riots. But she has structured it in a way that points up unexpected, and sometimes humorous, connections between the disparate speakers. A section in which Sharpton explains that his hairstyle is an homage to his surrogate father, James Brown, is followed by a Hasidic woman expressing her discomfort with the religious custom requiring married women to wear wigs.
On a serious note, a black Crown Heights resident explains how a community leader urged him to help quell the violence by telling him, "The blood of black men [is] on your hands tonight!" In the next segment, Norman Rosenbaum, the brother of the slain Hasidic scholar, addresses a rally saying, "My brother's blood cries out from the ground."
"Fires in the Mirror" is an installment in a continuing project of Smith's called "On the Road: A Search for American Character." In part, this project springs from her theory that the key to character can often be found in those uncomfortable moments when speech patterns break down. There are several telling instances of this in "Fires." Near the beginning, George C. Wolfe, director of the New York Shakespeare Festival, trips over the words, "My blackness does not exist in relationship to your whiteness." And near the end, Norman Rosenbaum stumbles as he recounts how a friend informed him of his brother's death.
Though Smith reproduces every faltering nuance in these speeches, there is nothing but assuredness in her performance. If you saw "Fires in the Mirror" on PBS, don't think you've experienced it fully. The broadcast was powerful, but it was abridged. Seeing this show in person lends it an immediacy that makes August 1991 in Crown Heights as urgently up-to-date as the emotions underlying those riots continue to be.
"I pray on both sides of the fence," says a black Crown Heights youth leader. So, it would seem, does Anna Deavere Smith. And so should we all.
"Fires in the Mirror"
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; through June 25
Call: (410) 332-0033