By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Sep 23, 2019 at 7:01 PM

In 1991, when a car driven by a Hasidic man swerved onto a sidewalk in Crown Heights, the crash killed 7-year-old Gavin Cato, a black child who had been playing with friends. This incident ignited a firestorm of rioting and violence that pitted the Jewish community against the black community and led to the stabbing death of a visiting Jewish scholar just a few hours after the accident. 

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of "Fires in the Mirror," by Anna Deavere Smith, examines the aftermath of that tragedy through interviews with people who were there, as well as statements from leaders from both cultures who Smith interviewed. The resulting play, directed by MCT Artistic Director C. Michael Wright and MCT Associate Artistic Director Marcella Kearns, is a complex and compelling evening of theater that uses individual testimony to identify both common ground and deep, painful divides among cultures. 

Since the play is a collection of verbatim quotes, it seems appropriate to let the playwright speak about her "documentary" approach to theater, as she described it in a 2005 Ted Talk: 

"So my grandfather told me when I was a little girl, 'If you say a word often enough it becomes you.' And having grown up in a segregated city, Baltimore, Maryland, I sort of use that idea to go around America with a tape recorder to interview people, thinking that if I walked in their words, that I could sort of absorb America ... I was also inspired by Walt Whitman who wanted to absorb America and have it absorb him."

"Documentary" or "verbatim" theater is not new. The technique was used in the 1930s in the Living Newspaper performances of the Federal Theater Project. And recently it’s been explored to great effect by Emily Mann ("Still Life"), Dael Orlandersmith ("Until the Flood") and Moises Kaufman ("The Laramie Project") among others. But Smith made it her signature medium by performing her own scripts for both "Fires in the Mirror" and "Twilight: Los Angeles 1992," about the aftermath of the Rodney King riots. The plays won Drama Desk Awards and earned Tony and Pulitzer nominations. 

The truly extraordinary part of "Fires" is watching an actor fully embody multiple people from extremely diverse backgrounds. This ability to inhabit distinct characters far outside the actor’s own race, culture or experience is also what makes MCT’s production so captivating, thanks to the talents of two well-known Milwaukee performers: Marti Gobel and Elyse Edelman. 

Entering from the back of the house in plain matching outfits – white shirts, jeans and boots – the actors take the stage in the Studio theater like a pair of storytellers on a mission. While one talks, the other reacts and listens. Working cooperatively, they share glimpses of the people who were affected by the Crown Heights riots, including those who had access to large audiences and those who were never given the chance to comment at all. 

Using hats, books, jackets, glasses, headbands and other small accessories, the two create distinct personas with different voices, accents and mannerisms. (Shout out to dialect coaches Raeleen McMillon and Rick Pendzich for helping with Caribbean, Australian, Ghanaian and Haitian accents, which were mostly solid.) Combined with the messy "real" speech of people who lose their trains of thought, stutter or are interrupted by phone calls, each monologue sounds much more like a television interview than a typical character in a play. The actors both incorporate trips of the tongue and normal extemporaneous distractions very naturally to give the play a raw, unedited feel. 

The interviews coalesce around several common themes: the fact that each group is outside the "white establishment" and is treated unfairly by police and government officials. That they have cultural traditions surrounding their hair that feeds their identities. That great wrongs have been done to their ancestors – through slavery and the holocaust – that can never really be righted.

That two completely innocent people were killed during the Crown Heights incident, and no one was held accountable. That many people from outside the neighborhood tried to advocate for them and improve the situation, to little avail. And that "coming together" as one common community was unrealistic, but some efforts at understanding and empathy were key to moving forward.

Both actors are most comfortable portraying characters closest to themselves, but both stretch to "absorb" those outside their experience. Gobel does spot-on interpretations of Reverend Al Sharpton, a black teenager explaining the difference between "bad boys" and athletes, and playwright Ntozake Shange as she gives an insightful explanation of race, among many others. Similarly Edelman’s storytelling as a Lubavitcher woman struggling to find someone to turn off the radio during the Sabbath and her turn as Letty Cottin Pogrebin, recounting the suffering of her uncle Isaac after World War II, feel deeply grounded. 

The set, by scenic designer Lisa Schlenker, looks like a gray, abandoned alley from the New York neighborhood, complete with wide cement steps outside an apartment building and alcoves full of cast-off possessions that later become costume pieces and props. There are many surfaces that can be marked up with chalk to subtitle the narrative of the play and twin makeshift candle vigils – one on either side of the stage – commemorate the two victims.

A chainlink fence along the back wall is covered with hand-scrawled posters of varying shapes that look almost like puzzle pieces, trying awkwardly to fit together. It’s a good, utilitarian space for the actors to play in, accommodating quick changes and several different physical levels.

As a collection of monologues that audiences have to link together for themselves, the play challenges viewers to draw their own conclusions from many accounts, which is a good exercise. But without a traditional narrative, the arc of the piece gets lost. And though the actors showed great urgency between scenes, the pace, emotion and intensity of each section felt the same. Without stronger direction to give the evening shape, there’s no real climax or denouement; the play just ends. 

Ultimately the audience doesn’t see the car crash, so we have to rely on the reports of a host of narrators who each saw the incident from their own perspective. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but the play doesn’t take sides. It simply reminds us that there are many vantage points to consider when conflicts erupt between large groups. And these issues are rarely as simple as black and white.