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Fires in the Mirror

Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities is a one-person play by American playwright, author, actress, and professor Anna Deavere Smith. It chronicles the viewpoints of people from two different communities, Black and Jewish, connected directly and indirectly to the Crown Heights riot which occurred in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in August 1991.

Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities
Written byAnna Deavere Smith
Date premieredMay 1, 1992 (1992-05-01)
Place premieredThe Public Theater
New York City
Original languageEnglish
SeriesOn the Road: A Search for the American Character
SettingCrown Heights, Brooklyn, New York City

Fires in the Mirror is composed of monologues taken directly from transcripts of interviews that Smith conducted with all the people depicted in the play. It is considered a pioneering example of the genre known as verbatim theatre.



Anna Deavere Smith's play Fires in the Mirror is a part of her project On the Road: A Search for the American Character. It is a series of monologues excerpted from interviews. Fires in the Mirror chronicles a civic disturbance in the New York neighborhood of Crown Heights in August 1991. In that racially divided neighborhood, a car driven by a Jewish man veered onto a sidewalk and killed a 7-year-old Caribbean-American boy who was learning to ride a bicycle. The accident and the delayed response of emergency medical personnel sparked protests during which a Jewish student visiting from Australia was stabbed on the street by a group of black youths. Days of rioting ensued, exposing to national scrutiny the depth of the racial divisions in Crown Heights. The rioting produced 190 injuries, 129 arrests, and an estimated one million dollars in property damage.[1]

Smith interviewed leading politicians, writers, musicians, religious leaders, and intellectuals together with residents of Crown Heights and participants in the disturbances to craft the monologues of her play. Through the words of 26 different people, in 29 monologues, Smith explores how and why people signal their identities, how they perceive and respond to people different from themselves, and how barriers between groups can be breached. "My sense is that American character lives not in one place or the other," Smith writes in her introduction to the play, "but in the gaps between the places, and in our struggle to be together in our differences." The title of the play suggests a vision of art as a site of reflection where the passions and fires of a specific moment can be examined from a new angle, contemplated, and better understood.[2]


The characters are as follows:

Ntozake Shange: 42- to 45-year-old African-American playwright, poet, novelist.

Anonymous Lubavitcher Woman: White mid-thirties preschool teacher.

George C. Wolfe: African-American playwright who was then the current director/producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival. (served 1993-2004)

Aaron M. Bernstein: man in his fifties. Physicist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Anonymous Girl: A junior high, teen-age black girl of Haitian descent. Lives in Brooklyn. (near Crown Heights)

The Reverend Al Sharpton: Well-known African-American New York activist and minister.

Rivkah Siegal: Lubavitcher woman. Graphic designer. Age unspecified.

Angela Davis: African American woman in her late 40s. Author, orator, activist and scholar. Was at the time a Professor in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Now retired.

Monique 'Big Mo' Matthews: African American Los Angeles rapper.

Leonard Jeffries: African American Professor of African American Studies at City University of New York. Was the former head of the department.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin: White author and founding editor of Ms. Magazine. Of Jewish descent and in her fifties.

Minister Conrad Mohammed: African American minister of New York who associates himself with Nation of Islam (he later became a Baptist). The minister for the Honorable Louis Farrakhan.

Robert F. Sherman: Director and Mayor of the City of New York's Increase the Peace Corps.

Rabbi Joseph Spielman: Spokesperson in the Luabvitch community.

Reverend Canon Doctor Heron Sam: Pastor at St. Mark's Crown Heights Church, of African American descent.

Anonymous Young Man #1: resident of Crown Heights, Caribbean American man in his late teens or early twenties.

Michael S. Miller: Executive Director at the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Henry Rice: Crown Heights resident.

Norman Rosenbaum: Brother of Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian.

Anonymous Young Man #2: Crown Heights resident, an African American young man in his late teens or early twenties.

Sonny Carson: Activist, of African American descent.

Rabbi Shea Hecht: middle-aged Lubavitcher rabbi, spokesperson.

Richard Green: Director of the Crown Heights Youth Collective and Co-director of Project CURE. (a black-Hasidic basketball team that developed after the riots)

Roslyn Malamud: Lubavitcher resident of Crown Heights.

Reuven Ostrov: Lubavitcher youth and member of project CURE, 17 years old at the time of the rioting and worked as an assistant chaplain at Kings County Hospital.

Carmel Cato: Father of Gavin Cato, originally from Guyana but now a resident of Crown Heights. [2]


The play is a series of monologues attained from interviews Anna Deavere Smith did with people involved in the Crown Heights crisis. Each one is titled with the person's name as well as a key phrase from that interview. There are a total of 29 monologues in Fires in the Mirror and each one focuses on a character's opinion and point of view of the events and issues surrounding the crisis. Most characters have one monologue; the Reverend Al Sharpton, Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Norman Rosenbaum have two monologues each.

Fires in the Mirror is divided into themed sections. The themes include the ideas of personal identity, differences in physical appearance, differences in race, and the feelings toward the riot incidents. The overall arc of the play flows from broad personal identity issues, to physical identity, to issues of race and ethnicity, and finally ending in issues relating to the Crown Heights riot.[2]

The play is structured as follows:

  • The Desert - Ntozake Shange discusses Identity in terms of the self fitting into the community as a whole and the feeling of being separate from others but still somewhat a part of the whole.
  • Static - An anonymous Lubavitcher woman tells a humorous story of getting a young black boy from the neighborhood to turn off their radio during the Sabbath because no one in their family was allowed to.
  • 101 Dalmatians - George C. Wolfe talks about racial identity and argues that "blackness" is extremely different from "whiteness"
  • Mirrors and Distortions - Aaron M. Bernstein intellectually theorizes how mirrors can distort images both scientifically and in literature.
  • Look in the Mirror - An anonymous girl talks about how racial identity is extremely important in her school and the girls act, dress, and wear their hair according to the racial groups.
  • Me and James's Thing - Al Sharpton explains that he promised James Brown he would always wear his hair straightened and that it was not due to anything racial.
  • Wigs - Rivkah Siegal discusses the difficulty behind the custom of wearing wigs. She focuses on how she feels like she is not herself and that she is fake.
  • Rope - Angela Davis talks about the changes in history of Blacks and Whites and then continuing need to find ways to come together as people.
  • Rhythm and Poetry - Rapper Monique Matthews discusses the perception of rap and the attitude toward women in the hip-hop culture. She explains the need for women in that culture to be more confident and not accept being viewed as sexual objects.
Seven Verses
  • Roots - Leonard Jeffries describes his involvement in Roots, a television series about the slave trade.
  • Near Enough to Reach - Letty Cottin Pogrebin explains that blacks attack Jews because Jews are the only ones that listen to them and do not simply ignore their attacks.
  • Seven Verses - Minister Conrad Mohammed theorizes and explains that blacks are God's chosen people and explains his views on the suffering of blacks at the hands of white people.
  • Isaac - Pogrebin talks about her uncle Isaac, a Holocaust survivor who was forced by the Nazis to load his wife and children onto a train headed for the gas chambers.
  • Lousy Language - Robert Sherman explains that words like "bias" and "discrimination" are not specific enough, leading to poor communication.
Crown Heights, Brooklyn, August 1991
  • No Blood in His Feet - Rabbi Joseph Spielman describes the riot events and believes that blacks lied about the events surrounding the murder of Cato in order to start anti-Semitic riots. Focuses on the malicious intent of the black kids that stabbed Rosenbaum.
  • Mexican Standoff - The Reverend Canon Doctor Heron Sam explains how he feels the Jewish community was unconcerned with the killing of Cato.
  • Wa Wa Wa - Anonymous Young Man #1 explains his view on the differences of police contact with the Jewish and Black communities and how he thinks there is no justice for blacks and never any Jewish arrests.
  • "Heil Hitler" - Michael S. Miller argues that the black community is extremely anti-Semitic.
  • Knew How to Use Certain Words - Henry Rice describes his personal involvement in the events and the injustice placed upon him.
  • My Brother's Blood - Norman Rosenbaum speaks at a rally about wanting justice for his brother's murder, and that he doesn't believe the police are doing all that they can.
  • Sixteen Hours Difference - Norman Rosenbaum talks about first hearing the news of his brother's death.
  • Bad Boy - Anonymous Young Man #2 explains that the black kid that was blamed for Rosenbaum's murder was an athlete and therefore wouldn't have killed anyone
  • Chords - Sonny Carson describes his personal contributions in the black community and how he is trying to teach blacks to act against the white power structure.
  • Ovens - Rabbi Shea Hecht does not believe integration is the solution to the problems of race relations.
  • Rain - Al Sharpton talks about trying to sue the driver who hit Gavin Cato, and complains about bias in the judicial system and the media.
  • Rage - Richard Green states that there are no role models for black youths and therefore there is rage among the black youth population.
  • The Coup - Roslyn Malamud blames the police and black leaders for letting the events and crisis get out of control.
  • Pogroms - Reuven Ostrov describes how Jews got scared because there are "Jew-haters" everywhere.
  • Lingering - Carmel Cato closes the play by describing the trauma of seeing his son die and his resentment towards powerful Jews.


Fires in the Mirror is a collection of multiple voices and points of view. It is a hybrid of theater and journalism.

Smith provides information as to where each interview was done, including the settings and environment, other people that were near, and when the interviews took place. This adds emphasis to the fact that this play is very immediate and real.

The play is written out in verse. Smith tries to emulate through the use of lines, ellipses, and other notation, exactly how things were said in each interview.[3]

Fires in the Mirror is a postmodern play. According to David Rush, characteristics of a postmodern play include there being no "author", its purpose is to engage the audience rather than show, there may be multiple narratives interacting with each other, the structure departs from the conventional play pattern, and the play is usually fragmented. Fires in the Mirror encompasses all of these characteristics.[2]


Racial tensionsEdit

The central focus of Fires in the Mirror is the anger between two ethnic groups in the area of Crown Heights in New York City: the Lubavitcher Jewish community and the African-American community. The monologues makes reference to slavery and the Holocaust, the often-fraught relationships between the two ethnic groups and the police, as well as the perceptions of the relationships between each other.

Personal identityEdit

By showing many different points of view and opinions on the issue of the riot, the play highlights that there are not just two sides, divided by race, but rather many different individual attitudes, emotions, and opinions.


Fires in the Mirror is staged as a one-person play. In the original production, there was no real physical set and limited props and costumes. Black and white photographs were displayed behind Smith as she moves from one monologue and character to the next. She slightly changed her appearance and mannerisms for each character. Throughout most of her performance she was dressed in black pants and white shirt and was barefoot.[4]

Many of the monologues have a musical accompaniment. The music ranges from black hip hop to Jewish chants. The music is meant to pair with the author's background or the essence of each monologue.[4]

Production historyEdit

Smith presented a first workshop production of the play in December 1991 at George Wolfe's Festival of New Voices [2]

Fires in the Mirror had its world premiere at the New York Shakespeare Festival on May 1, 1992. Its official press opening was on May 12, 1992.[2][4][5]

Fires in the Mirror has also been presented at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, Brown University, Stanford University, Royal Court Theatre in London, and many others.[2] It was presented as part of the 1994 Melbourne International Arts Festival in Australia at the Victorian Arts Centre (now Arts Centre Melbourne).

Television filmEdit

A film of the play was adapted under the direction of George C. Wolfe and starred Anna Deavere Smith herself. It was produced by Cherie Fortis and filmed by "American Playhouse".[2]


  1. ^ Kifner, John (August 22, 1991). "Clashes Persist in Crown Heights for 3d Night in Row". The New York Times. p. B1. Retrieved on 2007-10-20.)
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Smith, Anna Deavere. "Fires in the Mirror". New York, New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1993.
  3. ^ O'CONNOR, John J. "One-Woman Show on Black vs. Jew. " New York Times (1857-Current file) [New York, N.Y.] 28 Apr. 1993, ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2005). <>/
  4. ^ a b c Richards, David. "And Now, a Word From Off Broadway :SUNDAY VIEW/ 'Fires in the Mirror' reflects on violence and what lies beyond. 'Ruthless!' hooks the shark in the cherub. 'Empty Hearts' is a courtroom whydunit. 'One of the All-Time Greats' isn't. And Now, a Word From Off Broadway. " New York Times (1857-Current file) [New York, N.Y.] 17 May 1992, ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2005). <>
  5. ^ "'Fires in the Mirror' reflects on violence and what lies beyond" – The New York Times, May 17, 1992


  • Denzin, N. K. (2001). "The reflexive interview and a performative social science". Qualitative Research. 1 (1): 23–46. doi:10.1177/146879410100100102.

External linksEdit