Crown Heights is a small neighborhood in central Brooklyn. The neighborhood is primarily comprised of two communities, a West Indian/African-American community and a large group of between 10,000 and 16,000 from the Lubavitcher sect of Hasidic Jews. Both of these groups suffered great historic discrimination (Slavery, Jim Crow, and Racism on one side and the Holocaust, Anti-Semitism on the other). They have both experienced a great deal of intergroup tensions, misunderstanding and alienation in Crown Heights since the 60’s and 70’s, leading to a great deal of animosity between the two communities at the time. The 1960s and 1970s were a time of tense race relations in the area. New York City was experiencing increasing poverty, and racially or ethnically motivated conflict was increasingly common in some of its neighborhoods, including Crown Heights. This was in part due to its racially and culturally mixed populations. The neighborhood’s relatively large population of Lubavitch Hasidim, at the request of their leader, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneersohn stayed in the community after other whites left.During the Johnson administration, Crown Heights was declared a primary poverty area due to a high unemployment rate, high crime rate, and other contributing factors. Violence broke out several times in the neighborhood during the late 20th century, including during the New York City blackout of 1977: More than 75 area stores were robbed, and thieves used cars to pull up roll-down curtains in front of stores.In 1991, there was a three-day outburst of violence known as the Crown Heights Riot, which started between the neighborhood’s West Indian/African American and Jewish communities. The riots began on August 19, 1991 after Gavin Cato, the son of two Guyanese immigrants, was struck and killed by a car in the motorcade of prominent Hasidic rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Rioting began soon after a Jewish volunteer ambulance left the scene. Rumours circulated that the ambulance refused to treat Gavin Cato’s injuries while removing members of the Schneerson’s motorcade instead. A visiting rabbinical student from Australia was murdered in the ensuing riots. The riot unveiled long-simmering tensions between the neighborhood’s black and Jewish communities. 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 recounts the viewpoints of people from both the Black and Jewish communities, connected either directly or indirectly to the Crown Heights riot. The play is composed of monologues taken directly from transcripts of interviews that Smith conducted with all the people depicted in the play. The short snippets of conversation and glimpses of character do not try and follow any linear narrative. Instead, the play never directly follows the narrative of events, choosing instead to skirt around it, examines multiple religious and cultural identities in the community, making those people/characters central to the performance rather than the events that are taking place. This justifies the subtitle, “Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities”. The insistence on the histories, beliefs, convictions, and personal and cultural identities of individuals within this divided community is what ultimately legitimizes and authenticates the performance. Smith’s depiction of disparate cultural identities calls into question the notion of cultural appropriation. The play frames these characters as authentic, however, the interviews are edited for content, dwelling on specific moments during those interactions. The argument could be made that Smith’s treatment and editing of the interviews removes their context within a cultural and religious situation, and asks the audience to accept those out-of-context fragments as fact. Does Smith’s performance over-simplify the complex and long-standing cultural and religious conflicts that led to the Crown Heights riots? Does this have any impact on the effectiveness of the performance? In an age of oversimplified, sensationalist news, Smith’s performance allows the audience a window into the complexity of these cultural clashes, and the real people that are affected. In this way, Smith’s appropriation of cultural values and ideas actually encourages discussion and interest in the complexities of identity.
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