When I was 8, I spent two months trying to convince my mother I was allergic to water. That has nothing to do with anything, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to open today’s blog post. Welcome back! I hope everyone is having a great summer! I know I, for one, have spent my summer pondering deep existential questions like how many cats can I get before I’m officially labeled a crazy cat lady, and why are the Backyardigans TikToks so darn catchy??? If you have answers to either of these questions, please feel free to drop them in the comments section. Or of course, if you read this post and want to tell me your thoughts, you can comment as well! Today I’m looking at Anna Deavere Smith’s play Fires in the Mirror. We’ll have to start with a brief history lesson before jumping–
In the summer of 1991, long-simmering racial tensions between the Hasidic Jewish Chabad community and the Black community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, came to a head and resulted in a 3-day race riot that decimated the community. When a car driven by an Orthodox Jewish driver ran a red light and hit two Black children on the sidewalk– killing one and seriously injuring the other– many Black residents of Crown Heights were infuriated to find that the police at the scene seemed more concerned with the safety of the Jewish driver than the lives of the two Black children.1 Communal frustrations with a perceived system of preferential treatment afforded to the Jews in Crown Heights through double standards in law enforcement, government funding, and housing opportunities exploded into a particularly violent riot that left 152 police officers injured, numerous homes and stores looted, 122 Black Americans arrested, and Yankel Rosenbaum, a young Jewish graduate student, stabbed to death by a group of Black rioters.2
In turn, many Hasidic Jewish residents of Crown Heights were enraged at law enforcement’s response to alarming anti-semitism in response to the accident. Signs saying “Death to Jews” were carried at protests, Jewish stores and homes were targeted for looting, an Israeli flag was burned, and the suspect in the Yankel Rosenbaum killing was acquitted at trial.3 They perceived the murder and the riots as anti-semitic hate crimes and felt that the government didn’t go far enough to protect them simply because the perpetrators of this anti-semitism were Black.4
Enter Anna Deavere Smith. My new role model (Sorry Audra McDonald, we had a great run, but you’ve been replaced). Smith saw everything on the news and, like any of us, immediately wondered how she could turn this crisis into great art. Healing the world through art and making a literal difference, metaphorically.
Smith traveled to Crown Heights right after the riots and spent 8 days interviewing over 100 community members and civil rights leaders on both sides, from Yankel Rosenbaum’s brother to Angela Davis. Smith then created the play Fires in the Mirror, about the incident, in which she curated monologues out of the transcripts of 20 interviews. In each monologue, Smith “becomes” the interviewee speaking to an invisible interviewer.
Fires in the Mirror is hands down the most profound and inspirational piece of art that I’ve ever seen. Smith is masterfully gifted at embodying each character and staying true to each unique perspective in a way that feels more vulnerable/intimate than a documentary. The dialectical curation of diverse perspectives creates a patchwork storytelling of the event and the community’s feelings about it. But it is rife with complex questions about marginalized representation and casting. The play is performed as a one-woman show, meaning Smith portrays every person she interviewed, man and woman, Jewish and Black. Anna Deavere Smith is a Black woman (did I forget to mention that?).
This is Anna Deavere Smith. Extremely light-skinned and racially ambiguous to my eye, I assumed she must be half Jewish and half Black when I first watched the play. I was able to simply focus on her storytelling and didn’t initially grapple with any existential questions about her credibility to tell these stories.
Luckily, these were precisely the questions that Smith was interested in tackling in her work. Smith implemented a rather groundbreaking approach to verbatim theater that had rippling effects on the genre for long after. In each monologue, Smith chose a section from the original interview transcript where she felt that a person “revealed” their character. She made no alterations to the transcript outside of choosing which segment to use.5 She kept every umm, like, and err, no cutting, no pasting, no paraphrasing, no omissions, as she felt that that was integral to the integrity of each person’s perspective.
“Character, or identity, lies not in a pre-existing essence but in the process of self-authorship: …everyone, in a given amount of time, will say something that is like poetry. The process of getting to that poetic moment is where “character” lives…. The pursuit is frequently filled with uhs and ums and, in fact, the wrong words.6“-Anna Deavere Smith
A version of Fires in the Mirror was produced for Television and aired on PBS. This version is accessible on Youtube in 4 parts, feel free to watch the play. There are significant changes to the way this production was staged and produced from the original screenplay but it is a good way to get the essence of Smith’s work. Watch the clip below and see Anna “become” the “Anonymous Lubavitch Woman” interviewee by masterfully mimicking the unique speech pattern, gait, bodily posture, and accent.
“With my own work, I’m just trying to create possibilities for dialogue, to decentralize the race discussion, to try to bring more voices to it that don’t get heard. I believe we haven’t found the language for discussing difference yet, and the only way we find that language is by talking in it–not about it–and talking in it in these moments of crisis, when our anxieties are so big that we can barely speak.7”-Anna Deavere Smith
This show was a wild success! She was nominated for a Pulitzer and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show. She expanded her methodology for Fires in the Mirror and went on to cover the Rodney King Riots in her play Twilight, which was also an award-winning success. She is kind of a big deal. But will she pass the Samantha Williams Marginalized Representation in Casting Test (™ pending)? Let’s find out!
Welcome back to the EXCEL Log’s series on Marginalized Representation and Casting, where I advocate for a paradigm shift in the performing arts industry from a focus on authentic casting to a demand for intentional (and nuanced) casting! If you’re new to the series, check out the first post [link] where I explain why using authenticity as a yardstick for creative teams is reductive and counterproductive. Last time I wrote about how Hamilton handled casting characters of marginalized races in “inauthentic ways.”
This week I’ll be testing out my new protocols to see how Fires in the Mirror Fares! Let’s Dive in!
- Does it have a diverse production(Creative) team?
Ultimately no. As a one-woman show, there’s a singular lens in terms of whose vision is realized. In its premiere with the New York Public Theater, Anna Deavere Smith was the producer, director, interviewer, transcriber, curator, actor, and costume designer for Fires in the Mirror. And while the libretto is “authored” by a diverse group of individuals from various marginalized identities, Smith served as the arranger, curator, interviewer, and editor, giving her the power to frame, guide, and contextualize each character’s story. Anyone who’s taken a stats course knows interviews are RIFE with opportunities to bias and shape results. Furthermore, while the words within sections are kept verbatim, the act of curation in selecting which interviews and which segment of interviews to use in the production creates space for bias.
Her focus on allowing each character to “reveal themself,” to not judge any character, to represent but not criticize the perspectives she shares is a noble one. It’s inarguable that Smith worked hard to center an equitable representation of the perspectives of both sides in her work, but is that enough to mitigate her own biases? I don’t know! This is a hard one. I’m open to everyone’s suggestions.
Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: 🧐😕🤷🏿♀️
- Did it engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized communities in question?
“I want to know what ethos and credibility this creative team has to tell this story about a marginalized community. And since no marginalized community is a monolith, establishing ethos requires more than interviewing one person or reading one book and feeling qualified to portray that experience.”-Marginalized Representation in Casting Pt 1
Yes Ma’am! Anna literally sat down with hundreds of Crown Heights community members, asked them for their thoughts, perspectives, and stories, and then shared them as truthfully as she could. I asked for creators to show me their works cited pages, and Anna delivered.
Her commitment to dialogue and collaboration also came through in her practice of post-show talkbacks that she often paired with her performances. Talkbacks are a theater practice in which the creators and performers of a show have an open discussion with the audience who just watched it. This is an incredible way to show a commitment to continued collaboration and feedback. This practice gives audiences more agency in the art-making process and allows for an even deeper level of communal engagement. This is particularly noteworthy in the current climate of DEI and community outreach in arts administration that often views the community as a group to be “cultured” instead of as an influential part of the art-making and season curation process.
In one such post-show talkback, Smith was asked by an audience member whether a white male could do what she was doing?
“That’s a fabulous question!” Smith enthuses. “I would like to see somebody else do my show, somebody from a different race, maybe a Jewish woman or Jewish man. Would it be considered a stereotype? A caricature? Which one of us could get away with more? Is there in fact a kind of license that I have, a kind of permission that I have, because I’m black? This question about who can say what, who can enact which culture, is like ‘The Question.8’”-Anna Deavere Smith
Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: Exceeds Expectations
- Did they have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices?
YES! Anna Deavere Smith gets a Shiny Golden Star for having many accessible, transparent, and intentional explanations for her choice to cast herself as every character in the show across gender and racial discrepancies. This non-traditional casting choice was integral to the project’s vision; this was not an example of a casting director not wanting to deal with any extra work to find actors from marginalized identities.
From the get go Smith described her intention to “capture the personality of a place by attempting to embody its varied population and varied points of view in one person-myself.9“In an interview with the New York Times, she described her disappointment when a Black man came up to her and said that he wished a male actor had been cast.
“I thought, ‘Oh, for him, if he doesn’t see the black male body, he’s not seeing himself.’ And so I don’t count either. There is this feeling that only a black man could be a black man. That’s not philosophically where I live.10“-Anna Deavere Smith
Excuse me while I fangirl for a moment, but part of why I’m so obsessed with this work is that Smith is flirting with the very question of authentic representation in her work. What is the yardstick for authentic representation? Smith’s performance uses her individual black female body to show the human connectedness between us all while portraying that boundaries of difference such as race and ethnicity are “active negotiations,” not static immutable characteristics. Just as race is more of a social construct than a phenotype, Anna wants to bring attention to how our differences are socially constructed and performed.11 And that’s so flipping cool!
Furthermore, Smith goes on to press against the assumption that simply putting a body of color onstage is a political statement. She was criticized by a white reviewer who wrote that she “was doing a critique of white women. She said that the presence of my blackness, my black body, was evidence of my criticism. I thought if I was fully dutiful to speech rhythms, the color of my skin wouldn’t matter. I was wrong… It was very hurtful, and I feel I’m living it out to this day.12”
It seems reductive and short-sighted to say that the “presence of her blackness” makes her performance a criticism of an alternate identity. Smith’s work embodies the line in the sand that mimicking/representing an identity other than one’s own is not inherently mocking or disrespectful. That being said, performances of BIPOC characters that are based on mocking caricatures are often harmful to those communities in real life.” This brings us to our next question.
Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: The Shiniest Golden Star
- Does it present marginalized identities with intentionality and nuance, not as irresponsible caricatures?
There is undoubtedly great intentionality and nuance put into the performance and text of each character who speaks in Fires in the Mirror. Anna’s process for learning each monologue involved listening to the recording of the interview repeatedly, for hours, memorizing the unique speech patterns, effects, and characteristics, and then doing her best to present them accurately. That being said, the most common critique of her work that I came across was a concern that some of her representations bordered on caricature.
“At certain moments your portrayal was close enough to caricature to make spectators uncomfortable- close to but not really caricature. In displaying ethnicity in a slightly magnified way you underscored the humanity of the people you interviewed. Instead of trying to make a cohesive picture, you revealed different landscapes of emotions and histories. I connect this approach to feminist ideas about open-ended narratives, about the refusal of ultimate authority- even though there’s an authority operating.13”– Debby Thompson “Is Race a Trope” an interview with Anna Deavere Smith
Dictionary.com defines caricature as a picture, description, or imitation of a person in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect. Due to Anna’s Verbatim theater methodology, it seems that any exaggeration to comic or grotesque effect would be a question of a viewer’s individual interpretation of her intent and/or acting skills. I personally am willing to believe Anna had the best of intentions because she revolutionized an entire art form to be as accurate in her representations as possible (and as high maintenance as I am, that’s enough for me). I mean she put her time, energy, and resources where her mouth was. But even with the best of intentions, who can say the effect that art will have on someone?
We all know that intention and impact don’t always align. But I personally think that this is an example where the amount of effort that accompanied the good intent deserves acknowledgement even from the most staunch critic.
Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: Snaps
When delving into this type of art, it seems inevitable that there will be moments where the line between caricature and realistic representation(intent vs. impact) is thinner and thornier than others. What does it mean to represent a real person with aspects of their personality that overlap with harmful stereotypes made about their ethnicity? What does it mean to assume an accent, a race, a history other than our own?
I think that this method of verbatim theater, paired with sustained input from the marginalized identities whose stories are being told, is a compelling formula/rubric for artists interested in marginalized representation. Ask the people whose stories you’d like to tell, have a good reason as to why you want to tell this story, make sure you have a clear answer as to why you feel that you need to tell it instead of supporting someone in telling their own story, and then be as transparent, intentional, and committed to seeking feedback as possible.
For me, this is a prime example of an intentional art creator who seeks accountability for the choices they make in telling marginalized stories and also has earned the space to acknowledge differences in opinion and intent vs. impact. After careful conversions and tabulations, it appears that Fires in the Mirror does pass the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test for Marginalized Representation ™ (Pending).
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