In the summer of 1991, New York City experienced a brutal heatwave. In 39 days, the temperature never dipped below 90 degrees. At approximately 8:20 p.m. on August 19, a 22-year-old Orthodox Jewish man lost control of the station wagon he was driving through Crown Heights, Brooklyn, killing a 7-year-old Black child, Gavin Cato, and severely injuring Cato’s cousin Angela. In the chaotic aftermath of this tragic accident, Black residents of Crown Heights came to believe that the police had acted to assist the driver in leaving the scene, and that emergency medical services had failed to prioritize the treatment of Cato, who died soon after reaching the hospital.
For three days and nights following the incident, Crown Heights was engulfed in anti-Semitic violence as Black and Caribbean-American residents expressed their frustration at what they perceived as the last straw in a long-standing conflict over the way that Brooklyn was policed. As the situation unfolded, theater artist Anna Deavere Smith conducted more than 100 interviews with a wide range of people, including eyewitnesses, authorities, and everyone in between. A year later, she would change the course of American theater with Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities, in which she portrayed 26 different characters as they reflected on these events by performing their remarks in verbatim monologues, and by weaving their voices together into a single multifaceted vision. Within another year, Deavere Smith would go on to create Twilight: Los Angeles, a similarly organized piece dealing with the Rodney King unrest of 1992, thus giving birth to a distinguished and ongoing career, and to a new way of looking at the role that theater can play in American public life.
On Tuesday, February 2, at 7 p.m., Deavere Smith will appear on Zoom as part of Race to Justice, the UCSB Arts & Lectures digital series devoted to confronting the current state of racial affairs in this country and beyond. She will be performing excerpts from Notes from the Field, an examination of the school-to-prison pipeline, and talking with UCSB professor of English Stephanie Leigh Batiste. Deavere Smith is a familiar presence at UCSB, where she was a visiting artist in 2015, and where she has a longstanding relationship with the Department of Theater and Dance. In association with her appearance on Zoom, she has been acting as an advisor to a new student production of Fires in the Mirror, which will be performed live online on February 26-28. Professor Risa Brainin, who is directing the production, described the impact of Deavere Smith’s recent visit to rehearsal as “electrifying,” saying that the play remains “very much alive in her,” and that the BFA students were inspired by her presence.
This is not the first time that Fires in the Mirror has been done by someone other than Deavere Smith, and it’s unlikely that it will be the last. What began as a project defined by the particular skills and persona of the original performer has, over time, grown to be seen as a masterpiece in its own right, and a golden opportunity for actors to embody not only real people who witnessed the events, but also some of the most significant historical figures of the period, people like Angela Davis, Al Sharpton, and Letty Cottin Pogrebin. More perhaps than any other American theater artist of her generation, Deavere Smith has been responsible for preserving our history in all its pathos and complexity. It will be a pleasure to be with her again on Zoom, and her performance will make an exciting overture to what is bound to be a powerful production by the UCSB theater students. For tickets and information, visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu and theaterdance.ucsb.edu.
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