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TV REVIEW : A Tempered 'Fires' Comes to Small Screen : Anna Deavere Smith explores '91 unrest between African-Americans and Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn.


Anna Deavere Smith has been hailed as many things, from virtuoso actress to impartial chronicler of urban tensions--some of which she is, and some of which she's not. But the George C. Wolfe-directed "American Playhouse" version of her "Fires in the Mirror" (tonight at 8 on KPBS-TV Channel 15, 9 on KCET-TV Channel 28) tempers both her genius and her politics.

Staged last summer at New York's Public Theater, "Fires" is a captivating 90-minute account of responses to the August, 1991, unrest between African-Americans and Hasidic Jews in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Three hours after a vehicle driven by a Hasidic man swerved onto a sidewalk and killed a young black boy, a rabbinical student was murdered in a retaliatory stabbing nearby. Four days of rioting followed.

To create her piece, Smith went out and interviewed many Crown Heights residents and others, including street kids, housewives, rabbis, activists, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Angela Davis and author Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Using a documentary-theater format honed and brought into the mainstream by Emily Mann, JoAnne Akalaitis and others, Smith replicates excerpts from these interviews, turning herself into 20 different persons. In her hands, mimicry becomes art.

The subject is race relations, also the topic of a similarly constructed play on the L.A. riots that Smith will open at the Mark Taper Forum in June. She is sympathetic to both sides of the Crown Heights imbroglio, although the balance in the screen adaptation isn't as tipped toward the African-American perspective as it was in the live version.

Ironically, less was more onstage. The addition of sets and costumes (which were bare-bones minimal in the New York run) and a consistently close and aggressive camera have taken some of the magic and nearly all of the humor out of this solo performance piece.


Although Smith's chameleonic abilities will still blow you away, the characters have been pushed toward caricature. As a result, the common humanity of both the Jews and the African-Americans that is one of the play's points is muted. It's now less about one woman's ability to crawl into the skins of many people, and more about how well she wears different wigs.

Smith's consummate skills notwithstanding, the gravitas comes from the fact that the words she is speaking are taken verbatim from what real folks have had to say. Dramatic license enters the picture in the form of shaping and editing: whom Smith has talked to, how she has juxtaposed, distributed and contextualized these excerpts in relation to one another, and most importantly, what bits she has chosen to cull from each interview.

The myth of objective reporting has been called into question for some time now. Yet critics and others have been too eager to dub Smith's work unbiased, perhaps because she's putting timely salve on an open wound. But Smith isn't the cool anthropologist; it is precisely her passionate perspective that gives this work its drama. "Fires" isn't--and should neither aspire to be, nor be held up as--any more objective than the journalism to which Smith notes her work has been compared.

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