It’s been more than three decades since the predominantly Chasidic Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., erupted in a riot, following the tragic death of 7-year-old Gavin Cato. Gavim, who was Black, was struck by a car in the motorcade of Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Three hours later, a yeshivah student, Yankel Rosenbaum, was fatally stabbed.
The 1991 incidents led to five nights of rioting and revealed the growing inequities and tensions between the Chabad-Lubavitch community and their neighbors, Caribbean immigrants from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, anf Guyana. Accusations of mismanagement of the events by the New York City police commissioner deepened the rifts in Crown Heights between Jews and Blacks.
These events, which filled the news cycle in the late summer of 1991, remain relevant today, though forgotten by many as new examples of racial, religious and economic tensions continue to percolate in cities and suburbs around the country.
“Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities” was actor and playwright Anna Deveare Smith’s vehicle for understanding those tensions that set off the riots. Her 1992 one-woman live docudrama gave voice, literally, to members of both communities. In the original production, Smith portrayed nearly 30 real-life characters using the words and mannerisms she recorded in researching the Black-Jewish rift in Crown Heights. By inhabiting her interview subjects’ physicality, gestures and vocal and conversational tics with impeccable veracity, Smith’s performance was a tour de force.
This month, Theater J’s production of “Fires,” which initially ran virtually by Atlanta’s Theatrical Outfit in 2021, is co-directed by Adam Immerwahr and January LaVoy, who takes on the daunting role playwright Smith originated. This is Immerwahr’s final production as Theater J’s artistic director; after seven years he will be leaving for a yet-to-be-announced new position. “Fires” remains on stage at the Goldman Theater of the Edlavitch Washington DC-JCC through July 3.
The 100-minute documentary theater work delves into why this incident turned into a riot, parsing out what long-held inequities, traumas and misunderstandings could conflate into what one Jewish resident said was a pogrom. The play occurs on a spare set, with walls of brick and a backdrop of a bridge, designed by Nephelie Andonyadis. LaVoy is often seated at a table, speaking as if to an interviewer; the audience, in a sense becomes both questioner and listener, putting together the varying accounts of witnesses, commentators and family members to piece together the tragic incidents.
When Smith created these roles, her uncanny mimicry and ability to fully inhabit so seamlessly and comfortably so many public figures — playwrights Ntozake Shange and George C. Wolfe, the Rev. Al Sharpton, activist Angela Davis, author and co-founder of Ms. Magazine Letty Cottin Pogrebin, numerous members of the organized Jewish community, as well as immediate family of the two victims — Gavin Cato’s father and Yankel Rosenbaum’s brother. When Smith brought this work to Arena Stage in 1993, her transformations from character to character — occasionally completed on stage with a a simple change of a jacket or hat — were magical.
LaVoy’s performed portraits of these characters, 30 years later, remain vivid and serve the script well. While her transformations mostly occur off stage, where a cap, scarf, jacket or glasses accessorize her simple slacks and top (from costume designer Pamela Rodriguez-Montero), the effect is equally powerful. Interestingly, the “wow factor” of Smith’s technique is subdued in LaVoy’s performance, yet she is no less affecting. In shifting from a gregarious Al Sharpton talking about James Brown’s hair and how it influenced his own hair style then shifting to modest Rivkah Siegel, a Jewish woman discussing the reasons for wearing a wig, demonstrate LaVoy’s range and depth of characterization.
Each vignette in “Fires” builds this diverse collection of monologues into a more fully contextualized narrative of the ill-fated events that precipitated the Crown Heights riots. But this is more than just verbatim documentary reporting. Smith, and now LaVoy, wrestle with issues of identity and communal affiliation in ways that are as relevant today in a nation that feels even more deeply divided and factionalized than it was in 1992.
At heart of this small but not inconsequential one-woman work resides a collection of personal stories that can begin a journey toward healing fractured community relationships, if those involved listen and hear the other side of the story. That’s a lesson that continues to resonate today. “Fires in the Mirror” serves as a reminder for each of us to take other people’s stories to heart as a step forward toward healing.
“Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities” through July 3. Theater J at the Edlavitch DC-JCC, 1529 16th St., NW, Washington. Tickets: $60.00. Proof of vaccination and masking required to enter the building. Streaming tickets also available. Visit https://theaterj.org/2021-2022-season/fires-in-the-mirror-21-22/.