The Intersection of Fear and Hope

A Tufts production of “Fires in the Mirror,” about two deaths and the 1991 Crown Heights riots, reveals deeper human truths
Watch a video with student actors talking about the production of “Fires in the Mirror.” Video: Alonso Nichols
April 18, 2018

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Bridget O’Leary, visiting artist in the Department of Drama and Dance, this month brings to the Tufts stage a play from 1992 that, as she sees it, “could have been written today.” Fires in the Mirror, by actress, author, and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, explores the three-day riot that erupted in August 1991 in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.

Racial tensions exploded when a black child died after being struck by a car in a rabbi’s motorcade that accidentally jumped the curb. During the rioting that followed, a Hasidic scholar was stabbed to death by a group of black youths.

“It’s about a tension between who we want to be, and who we are compelled to be,” said Bridget O’Leary. Smith’s one-woman play, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, draws on her interviews with hundreds of people from both the black and orthodox Jewish communities. The transcripts led her to create twenty-six characters, ranging from community leaders and victims to politicians, housewives, and activists.

The Tufts staging, which ran last weekend and plays again April 19-21 at Balch Arena Theater, will feature seven students playing multiple parts, and is directed by O’Leary, associate artistic director at the New Repertory Theatre and literary chair for the National New Play Network.

O’Leary recently spoke with Tufts Now about a play whose enduring relevance she says speaks to its deep grasp of human frailty and strength.  

Tufts Now: How did you arrive at the idea of proposing this play?

Bridget O’Leary: My office bookshelves are filled with plays in alphabetical order, and whenever I’m working with an actor who wants a monologue or someone is teaching a play, I just stand in front of the bookcase and I scan it. So when Tufts was looking for proposals, I did that. I scanned it, and I got to this title and I stopped for a minute. I had read it years ago. And I wondered, is this dated—or not? And when I read it, I was floored. It could have been written today. I was very excited with the opportunity to do this right now, and humbled by the fact that it is so relevant, more than twenty-five years later.Alexa Rudolph, A21, and Blyss Cleveland, A20, perform during a rehearsal for “Fires in the Mirror.” Photo: Alonso Nichols

What makes it work?

I think theater is at its most powerful when it can draw its audience into a provocative conversation, when it can artfully bring people in and expose them to uncomfortable truths and then invite them to talk about them. This play does. That’s an important reminder to theater students—and others—of why what we do here matters so much. It creates an active and important conversation with our community, and, for our students, it puts them right in the center of political and social issues.

Do you have a particular framework of ideas that inform how you direct? 

The play is a perspective on the human response leading up to the killing of the young boy and of the Jewish man. You could say, well, that response was rage, anger, frustration. It was the “perfect storm” that came about when two populations of people who had long felt oppressed, marginalized, and unsafe were pitted against each other.

Travis Percy, A18, performs a monologue during a “Fires in the Mirror” rehearsal. Photo: Alonso NicholsBut it’s about much more than that. It’s a reflection of identity and how we identify, including the difference between how I identify myself and how you see me. It encompasses the fact that the way that you see me impacts how I identify myself. A tension can be created around our identity, and in this play that tension is racial and cultural identity—it’s even class identity.  It’s about a tension between who we want to be, and who we are compelled to be.  

Anna Deavere Smith pioneered what is now called “verbatim” theater. How do you describe her genius?

I recently met her, in December, and I remember she said that as an artist she is always seeking to explore that which is not her. It’s the idea—“this is not my experience, but I want to explore the why”—that’s what drives all her work.  I’ve seen Let Me Down Easy and Notes from the Field, both at American Repertory Theater, and I’ve watched her perform excerpts of her work. For her it’s really getting into the skin of another person.

And she inhabits them so authentically.

She is not only inhabiting these characters; she’s putting them together in an order that gives you an overview of what was going on. She’s creating a play with voices of people who are real.

Palak Khanna, A18, Adam Lipson, E21, and Alexa Rudolph, A21, rehearse a scene. Photo: Alonso NicholsWhat I think is so interesting about this piece is there is a real difference between truth and fact. Fact is tangible: the date, the time, the event. A person died. But everything that is presented around it is individual truth. When you get to the part in the play where people are talking about their own experiences, they are all different, and I think that that is a reality that we all face when you’re getting the news or an eyewitness account of an event. I think she revealed what it is to be human. Our truths, the things that we believe, our experiences all create what we know to be our truth—and sometimes those don’t align with the facts.

What do you hope Tufts students will take away from the play?
I hope that they will become more aware of the blind spots that we carry with us—my own identity, my own experiences, my presumptions of how you see me. It creates a blind spot: I can’t see you. I am unable to hear your truth. But also it means that sometimes I might be in your blind spot. Maybe you’re not seeing me.

I think that’s a really interesting conversation to have, especially right now, when discourse in our society is so polarized. The rise of civil rights movements—race, gender, feminism—sometimes we get so wrapped up in our own outrage that we stop seeing what’s around us. And sometimes we get so wrapped up in our experiences that we forget to listen to others. I hope this play shows how important it is to pull back, open up, and have an honest conversation.  That’s what I hope the students, and our audiences, take away.   

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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