Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities, by Anna Deavere Smith, was performed to sold-out houses and great critical acclaim at the New York Shakespeare Festival from May until August this year. The work is part of a series developed by Smith called On the Road: A Search for American Character.
In the series, Smith creates theatre pieces out of interviews, performing all the interview subjects verbatim. She is interested in “where a person’s unique relationship to the spoken word intersects with character.” Each show has a diverse collection of women, men, and youths with varied points of view about current issues. Some of the interviewees are well known and others are not. Fires in the Mirror focuses in part on a racial conflict that erupted in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in August of 1991.
TD As we begin, Anna is describing a crisis that evolved when she got her students to work on the play Movie Stars by Adrienne Kennedy.
Anna Deavere Smith I had gone to find that play because being the African-American on the Carnegie Mellon faculty in 1979, the expectation was that I would find the play for the black senior who had not been cast the whole time she had been in school. But I really didn’t want to do a “black” play. I wanted to do a play that would have a racially mixed cast, and that would have race mixed in a way that I had never seen before. So I was shocked to stumble on Movie Stars, because it was exactly that. It played with persona, and with what many of us are afraid to play with as black people—the extent to which, in a real visceral way, white images have influenced our identities. And [Adrienne] is so honest about that, so clear, and so brave. That’s why I was attracted to the material, but it also put me in a crisis …
TD How did this come to a point of crisis?
AS I was having trouble with the text because (pause) it was very disturbing, almost like a bad dream. The structures I had for thinking about my own black experience were very different in meeting her text. And so I can remember going home one night, and I was very distraught, in a great loneliness about the whole experience. And I turned on the television, and turned the sound down, because I was now in the habit of watching TV with the sound down so that I could get used to splitting up action and gesture and speech—which I needed to do to direct the play. And Sophia Loren was on the Johnny Carson Show. The show was so strange.
First, there was a great deal of enthusiasm for Sophia Loren, but when she got on the show, it was clear that Johnny was uncomfortable; the audience was uncomfortable. There were no laughs. There was this big set-up for a present Johnny had for her, and she was encouraged to open it—which she did, quite slowly. It was a red garter. So then Doc starts playing this striptease music … There’s this big pause because she’s not responding. She obviously isn’t amused. Then she says, “Shall I put it on?” And Johnny says, “Oh my God, of course. Go ahead.” And she puts it on, and it’s real slow. It’s not funny; it’s really sexy. So everybody is disturbed. And everytime Carson tried to make a joke like, “Why don’t you tell us about how they called you stuci caldente when you were little … “
“Well, stuci caldente — it’s a skinny spaghetti but you shouldn’t laugh. I was very skinny because I had nothing to eat.” And so on.
And then Joan Rivers came on, and all of her humor was about Sophia’s looks and her breasts and Joan’s own lack of looks. “She asks for a glass of water; they are outside, stomping on grapes for her. Me, I ask for water and (spit), here!” Finally, Johnny says, “You shouldn’t treat yourself like this.” And [Joan] says, “No, no, I know I was not wanted. I know it.” “No you don’t, Joan. How do you know?” “I was born with a hanger in my ear.” Of course the audience loved it; they were peeing from hysteria and delight. Johnny was weeping he was laughing so hard. Then the Hines Brothers came on and tap danced.
I thought this show is about America. I don’t know why. The difficulty the audience had with Sophia’s magnitude and then the comfort with Joan’s exaggeration intrigued me.
A couple of months later, my friend Mary called me up and said it’s on again. I tape recorded it; I transcribed it, and this is when I became really interested in watching not what people say, but how they say it. Particularly when they run out of words. In the case of a person like Sophia Loren, when she runs out of words, she’s even greater because the real space is her physical space. And her physical space comes first; the words fit in to that. I remembered everything Sophia did. Whereas with Joan, I remember everything she said, and I don’t have a single image of anything about her appearance. See what I mean? And that just sent me down this way of watching talk shows all the time. Transcribing them and watching them for how people behave in the moment the interviewer questions their identity—usually it’s threatening.
And then I thought, well, why don’t I just start doing my own interviews and watch how people handle keeping a persona. What happens to language while they’re trying to do that, especially, if I construct interviews where I don’t ever threaten people, where I try to stay out of the way. And what I learned was that in an hour, which was the normal interview time, everybody does what I call “talking in poetry”—which is saying something only they could possibly say, in a way that only they could say it.
TD Everybody talks about how each of the people in Fires in the Mirror gave you something, revealed something about themselves. Do they do that because you leave them alone, or because they have an understanding that in the nature of the situation they should give you something only they could give?
AS See, I don’t know. Somebody would have to come watch my interviews. I don’t know what they do.
TD Do they perform for you?
AS People do perform in spite of themselves. You’ve seen that when you’ve done interviews.
TD But from watching the work, I would say that some of them performed for you. Or maybe that’s how they deal with any situation that could be threatening. And a one-on-one situation is fairly threatening if you don’t know the person. Your characters have genuinely, to me, performed for you.
AS Well, we don’t see the whole interview in the show, as you know. I’m using just one minute; I’m taking a corner of the page and magnifying it for theater. That might also be why there seems to be this greater truth; it may just be a magnified one.
TD Well, it also magnifies the characteristics of the character. Do you hear the things that you later select while you are interviewing them?
AS A lot of times I hear them. I mean, I heard Reverend Al Sharpton’s, “Me and James’ thang … ” and that begins to dictate the way I look at the rest of the show. I heard: “Jewish people don’t drive vans over seven-year-old boys.” I remember we both heard together Conrad [Muhammad’s], “They are masquerading in our garment.” I mean, I heard it. And the fact that you heard it meant a lot to me.
TD Sometimes when I listen back to a tape, I hear whole sentences I never heard. So I know with this piece you’ve sometimes gone back two, three, four, five times and heard something else that somehow connected.
AS Well, up until now, I’ve edited and memorized under this awful gun of time. A lot of times there’s almost no tolerance for playing with something, so usually when I make the decision about what’s cut, it’s cut. In this experience, of having a longer run, I have had the chance to go back and listen to the tape. And maybe there was a line that was too complex to learn—you know, just rhythmically too complex to learn in the time that I had—but I can go back and hear it and add it now.
TD “They are masquerading in our garment.” Conrad Muhammad says that in reference to Jewish people. What do you think that means?
AS Well, I think that it means to look at the whole character and to look at what’s important to him. To look at his language. I’m sure that line is something that he’s heard before; that is part of a larger speech and thought. It probably came from Farrakhan, maybe Malcolm. I won’t pretend to completely interpret Conrad’s “Seven Verses,” I don’t want to diminish Conrad. But if this were just a flat text, I would say, well, the character is interested in clothing, I know that he is because of how he was dressed, how fastidious he was, how specific his clothing was, how he told me that the Muslims strip you down and take you from the bottom and don’t even assume that you know what kind of underwear to wear. They tell you how to be a man from there. He talks about why they wear the suit, why they wear the bow tie. And so the garment is an extremely important part of being a man, being in the world. A garment is an armor, I think, that the black Muslims wear to protect their manhood, to protect their integrity, to protect their humanity. And so part of that integrity, and that manhood, and that humanity is that to be the chosen is to have been given God’s armor. Armor because you are the most vulnerable, historically. According to him, there’s no way that the Jews are that, that they could have been that, given the historical evidence. And so they are pretending, they are frauds; they are wearing the clothes—they are pretending to be the chosen. They’re masquerading in the garments.
TD It’s a funny expression. “They are masquerading in our garments.” It seems to come from another era almost. Do you find that people that you interview, after you listen to them over and over, have a telling vocabulary? That there really are only a few central verbs or nouns that you start to lock onto? How does that work?
AS Everybody does have a central vocabulary, and frequently, it’s exactly that. It does sound odd; it does sound peculiar; it does sound like it comes from another era or is a broken thread. I have a friend who’s a weaver, and she talks about how she’ll deliberately break the warp thread, which is just a crazy thing to do. But she does that so her clothes have something individual about them. Everybody does that in a given speech. If we went through all the characters, we could find that. It’s something a lot of times you probably heard before. It could be something that Elijah Muhammad concocted because he’s the one who had them wear the bow ties, for example. It could be from a piece of literature. So when a person takes something—well, all language comes from elsewhere. Few of us really create words of our own. Babies do, and then the whole family will use that word with the baby for several years, like “wah-wah” for water. We are always trying to integrate new things we’ve heard from elsewhere that don’t really fit our own historical language. So that’s what our sign of ourself is … in picking up stuff and trying to fit it in.
TD It’s which stuff?
AS What do you pick up? What do you successfully integrate? But I’m interested in the stuff that stays bumpy. Sometimes the bump is fascinating, and sometimes it’s not
TD The intellectuals in the piece tend to try and think of metaphors. Angela Davis thinks of a metaphor for you, Ntozake Shange gives one and A.M. Bernstein searches for other metaphors for you. But the people in the “Crown Heights” section are much more in the moment, people who do not reflect as much. Even though they are reflecting, they are not professional reflectors like the people in the first half.
AS That’s right. That’s good. That’s exactly right.
TD The people involved in the incident tend to be more revealing in their language. Professional introspectives are more revealing to me in how they speak.
AS Although you know the rope that Angela uses, I wonder where that came from? I can’t find a trace of it really in any obvious way from her speech, or in the whole interview. Whereas with Conrad, we can trace it; we can find it, because he speaks about his clothing. Although she talks about slavery, and I’ve always thought that that rope speech means something about slavery. What’s good about intellectuals is the rhythm of their speech, but in terms of finding these bumps, it’s much harder.
TD Right, right.
AS I mean, that’s why we like the “bad boy” so much, because that logic is so sweet, and so clever, and so unique to him. He made that up.
TD They are not things you’d disagree with, but they are not things that you articulate, either. It’s necessary for them to tell us some things that should be assumptions: “We don’t kill seven year olds.” And in a way, the crisis in Crown Heights does that. It’s so intractable that you find people are telling you things that you should be able to assume and know about human beings. But it is as though, because I am the other, I know nothing is assumed about my humanity, so I’m going to tell you … from scratch.
AS First of all, I’m a human being. (laughs) Yes. (still laughing) In case you didn’t know that.
TD You’ve said that race is your work. I remember in rehearsal you said it casually: “Well, race is my work. This is what I do.” How did you mean that? Is race your work?
AS Yeah. It did come out of the circumstances of the work that I said it, but it gets …
TD I’m magnifying something, but in this case, I would say it was a “bump” of yours.
AS It’s a bump of mine. It’s a funny thing for me to say because I’ve tried so hard in my life, even when I was a kid, to have what I consider the different perspective on the race movement. Part of it was an effort to position myself, to find a place to be because I’ve always felt on the outside of it. I wasn’t fully an integrationist, and I wasn’t a separatist. I wasn’t comfortable with—I didn’t socialize completely with the black cliques at school. And I certainly didn’t completely socialize with the white cliques.
So I was on the outside, weaving back and forth and in and out. I had to find a way to be able to thinkabout the reality of where I was because I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere. And maybe it’s not simple for anybody; maybe it’s a big fallacy, illusion that I have. But growing up through integration and then into the ’70s, there were lots of pictures of groups of black people marching together and groups of white people marching. And I never was a part of a united thing—that’s just my personality—but it was very important to me to figure out what I thought. Obvious figures that we know in the history of race would say that. I would assume you’d feel like you’re in a band of people because it’s “we”—work. I just had to find my “we.” And all these years have been like that: standing on the outside; putting my foot in; and trying my best to be a “we” and feel right. But now I realize that even though that’s the way I did it, it was my work—that’s the work I was doing. I never abandoned it; I never did something else. I never pretended it didn’t exist. And maybe it’s every person of color’s work. White people don’t have to do this work, and many of them don’t. Racially, at least, many of them assume their place without question. Like gravity.
TD The reason I picked up on the line is because it resonated with me, and I thought, “Gee, race is my work too,” even when I didn’t set out to do that. And it becomes something you have to have some expertise in to survive, even if you’re really interested in astronomy.
AS Right. I would love to look carefully at the anatomy of someone who does not feel that they have had that experience.
TD A black person?
TD Do you see your work as a text? Something other people may perform later?
AS Yeah, probably. I don’t know if I’d go see it. (laughs)
(Smith explains that she could imagine doing Fires on alternate nights with another actor.) The person I thought of the other night is Sandra Bernhard. She would be perfect: a Jewish woman who’s quite different from me anyway, right?
TD This, in a way, goes back to the “race is work” issue; this is the kind of work I have not seen a white person do. There’s a fine line between what would be an incredible performance and what would be regarded as dangerous territory. When you have one actor doing it, that person becomes responsible, they have to do all of it, and they have to do all of it on a fine line. So I have been wondering, is this something that black people have to do first?
AS That’s where all the risk in the work has to be. We’ve already been through the time where black people do it first, and I think that it would be exactly shocking, and exactly dangerous, and exactly right to have a Sandra Bernhard, or a kind of Sandra Bernhard, do my show one night. It would be difficult for black people to watch her do black people, and maybe even more difficult, for white people to watch her do black people. But it may also allow people to express their difficulties. It’s my suspicion that some black people have trouble with me doing black men.
But it’s exactly these anxieties, these inhibitions that the audience really needs to confront. It was the only way that we could be when we went through this race work before, to say: We will take responsibility as black people to talk about our experience. We don’t want to hear from you. We have the authority here. You haven’t done this work. Okay, nobody wanted to do it. They wanted to pretend we weren’t here. We will take the responsibility of saying we were here. We don’t want to hear what you have to say. You don’t know. We know. So, we were typecasting white people, too. Now I think that that’s dangerous because the work so badly needs to be done that anyone who heartily wants to do the work carefully, should do it. It’s not a matter of allowing or not; they should not be silent. White people are a race. For us to take moral responsibility meant that it helped them continue not to do their work in race. Probably the ones who were doing their work the most vigorously were the racists like David Duke.
So I’m interested in trying to work through the difficulties of now having a dialogue with people ’cause my experience in race is usually a monologue when it comes to being with white people. You know, if I go in to any administrator about how race could be better in the certain institution, usually, they’ll call the meeting they’ll want desperately to talk with me. But the meeting will begin with their arms folded over their chest, saying, “What can we do for you, Anna?” Not “What’s the problem?” “What’s your problem?” And it’s our problem. Twenty years ago, people said, “It’s your problem. It’s whitey’s problem.” But it’s our problem, all of us.
TD The thing that’s nice about the piece is that, even though all the characters are doing monologues, there is a quality of listening that you don’t have in those meetings.
AS Well, it’s because people really do get to speak uninterrupted—or there’s the illusion that they are speaking uninterrupted. Someone gets to say their fill, and the next person speaks. If I jumbled it up and made a play out of it, Roz wouldn’t get through that whole thing without someone saying something. (laughter) Conrad, Leonard Jeffries—no—they wouldn’t get finished. And if you get in the way, if you don’t let people finish, it’s harder for them to get to the bumps. Unless, it’s a very skilled speaker: a person who gets so excited by controversy that it accelerates where the pulse comes from. Most people get frightened in that type of controversy; they close down and don’t open up. A Sharpton probably opens up. Angela probably opens up under fire—orators do—but most people don’t. So, that’s why we have to have a different way of listening, a different way of thinking of dialogue, and a different way of thinking of the race discussion.
TD One of the reasons that it seems like these pieces don’t come out of the theater that white people are doing is because they’re not thinking about it.
AS But don’t you think that we think about it a lot?
TD We think about it all the time. But for me it’s the “back wheel” that’s thinking about it for many hours of many days, just storing information in a matrix that’s there—call it “race”—it’s a whole network of thoughts.
AS Most of the organizations that we have are black organizations so that’s what we do talk about. I wonder, in your friendships with black people, how much do you talk about race? Or if you talk about it?
TD I do. And not in just my friendships with black people.
AS But with white people.
TD Asians, Latinos—all people of color. It’s a big subject in that friendship. And that may be partly an expression of who I am. Do you feel that other people, white people, can allow themselves to think about race deeply in such a way that they can build work out of it?
AS If they accept the fact that they are a race, absolutely. Absolutely. If they accept the fact that they are a race. But in as much as we are a minority, maybe this is a minority part of their experience—they have access to many more aspects of life than we do by dint that they’re privileged—this is a smaller part of their life, but I think that they can. Of course they can. It could be like if a white person, I would imagine, were to really think about—but this is the hardest work of all for both of us. If a white person who has a fascination with a black person, black artist, were allowed to think that through. I can’t tell you how many white people have told me that when they were little, they had a black friend that they were really fascinated with, and at some point, their parents took them away from that person. It’s always an awful moment in conversation for me when a white person tells me those stories. It didn’t used to be an awkward moment for me; I used to be genuinely interested because I’m interested in people’s personal histories. I’m a spy like that—I love that.
But I learned in college that those are warning signals, danger bells somehow. They would bring that up as a way of talking to me. And I think the reason it might come up as a way of talking to me is because there is an anxiety again of having an interest in me, to like a black person. And I think that acting always has to take people back to their original episodes that made inhibitions, to try to work those through so that they can have access to more of their own gifts and their voice. If a person were willing to and not inhibited about saying, God, I’m really fascinated with that person or attracted to that person. There are obvious reasons why that’s dangerous. If you’re fascinated, if you are attracted, you might get close. And when you get close, you’re going to get closer to the war that’s between us. The war that has never been fully fought. It’s a bloody war, and it could end in disaster. And I’m not just talking about intimate relationships in terms of one with the other, but to even do this work, you and I both know how bloody the war is. People have reason to be cautious, but I’m not going to be the person to say, “Don’t do it.” I’m not going to be the one to say,“You don’t belong here.” I’m absolutely not. I really want to see people try it, make it through the trenches with it.
Now the politics of it get complicated—and I guess this is why as colored people, we tend to be very cautious—if those people get to appropriate the race movement and see privileges we don’t have; it’s very hard. I don’t want to be really naive by implying that we can do anything without the power structures that give us opportunities, that give us money, that give us grants, that give us jobs. I don’t want to be that naive. But just talking about what the work is in the trenches, I wonder if we really can talk about appropriation, because I so firmly believe that we all have to do this work.
TD This goes back to what we were talking about in the beginning: how we try to find a language, and we do appropriate our language, in that pieces all come from somewhere outside.
AS That’s right. That’s right. You learn because of the process of being interviewed. The most wonderful thing I came upon was thinking about learning to speak—it also had to do with voice. I lost my voice while doing Fires and I had to write what I needed and wanted to say, and people would read back to me what I had said. It brought up all these really old feelings of when I was a little girl. At first I thought it was because my mother had read to me as a child. And people were much nicer to me when I couldn’t talk. Very nice. People at the bank, cab drivers—everyone wanted to help me. People who were normally nasty. One of the most intimate things that happens in your coming into the world is learning to talk. And I used to always ask my students that on the first day of class. I’d say, “What’s your name? Where you from?” I’d say, “Who taught you how to talk?” And they’d look at each other like, “Do we have to go through a term with this fool?”
TD Do people know?
AS They seldom remember. They usually say, “Oh, I don’t know. I guess my mother.” I guess my mother. Sometimes people have very wonderful and clear memories of a specific person. Like one girl whose brother taught her how to talk. Another girl from Puerto Rico said, “I learned to speak English at Swarthmore.” I mean, I love that. “I learned to speak English at Swarthmore.” When you don’t have language, you are wanting to be in the world. You’re wanting to be something; you’re wanting to do something; you’re wanting to cause action. And you need this other person, who may have the most reprehensible way of being in the world or the nicest way of being in the world, to give you the keys to do that. And so I think it’s a phenomenal relationship. And that’s why when we get into rocky ground and we don’t have language, and there are a few people who are more articulate than others or who have developed the language; it’s very hard because it means that somebody has to back up and trust that person’s few words to begin to develop even their own syntax. Greg Tate told me in our interview that the problem in race work is that black people develop the language. So for white people to participate, they have to take on the language that we developed. I don’t know. It’s a compelling thought. I don’t know if it’s true or not. But I do know that to come into language to begin to speak and develop language, it’s this incredible, amazing trust that you have to have with the person who is giving you the basic words.
TD Well, white people developed a language about race, particularly outside of this country … where we’re not present. They have a language for it that objectifies us. And then in this country, the language that is “bad language,” that was developed by white people is language we’ve rejected.
AS The language—let’s not say all of it—that was based on hate is what we used to run from.
TD Don’t we have to be prepared to give up the language or share?
AS We have to be willing to go to the table; we have to be willing to walk in the construction site. All of us with chisels and construction hats on. Nobody can walk in a construction site without a construction hat. Nobody. That’s what I think.
TD A hard hat?
AS A hard hat.