(Thulani Davis's article appeared in BOMB 41/Fall 1992.)

Anna Deveare Smith

Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities, by Anna Deveare Smith, was performed to sold-out houses and great critical acclaim at the New York Shakespeare Festival from May until August this year. The work is part of a series developed by Smith called On the Road: A Search for American Character.

In the series, Smith creates theatre pieces out of interviews, performing all the interview subjects verbatim. She is interested in “where a person’s unique relationship to the spoken word intersects with character.” Each show has a diverse collection of women, men, and youths with varied points of view about current issues. Some of the interviewees are well known and others are not. Fires in the Mirror focuses in part on a racial conflict that erupted in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in August of 1991.

Thulani Davis As we begin, Anna is describing a crisis that evolved when she got her students to work on the play Movie Stars by Adrienne Kennedy.

Anna Deveare Smith I had gone to find that play because being the African-American on the Carnegie Mellon faculty in 1979, the expectation was that I would find the play for the black senior who had not been cast the whole time she had been in school. But I really didn’t want to do a “black” play. I wanted to do a play that would have a racially mixed cast, and that would have race mixed in a way that I had never seen before. So I was shocked to stumble on Movie Stars, because it was exactly that. It played with persona, and with what many of us are afraid to play with as black people—the extent to which, in a real visceral way, white images have influenced our identities. And [Adrienne] is so honest about that, so clear, and so brave. That’s why I was attracted to the material, but it also put me in a crisis…

TD How did this come to a point of crisis?

AS I was having trouble with the text because (pause) it was very disturbing, almost like a bad dream. The structures I had for thinking about my own black experience were very different in meeting her text. And so I can remember going home one night, and I was very distraught, in a great loneliness about the whole experience. And I turned on the television, and turned the sound down, because I was now in the habit of watching TV with the sound down so that I could get used to splitting up action and gesture and speech—which I needed to do to direct the play. And Sophia Loren was on the Johnny Carson Show. The show was so strange.

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(Smith's work is part of One on One:  The Best Women’s Monologues for the 21st Century from Applause Theatre and Cinema Books.)


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