BOSTON — ANNA DEAVERE SMITH is alone, collapsed on the smooth, hardwood floor of a huge room on the campus of Radcliffe College, a ballroom with bulbous brass chandeliers and the acoustics of a cavern, making the meditative sounds of an actress warming up.
Ms. Smith has spent many months in this room, talking to herself, imagining herself to be people she has met, recreating the "personality of a place" that is a long way from the cloistered coziness of Radcliffe Yard. It's no wonder that the building's security guard, who used to hear her heartfelt impersonations of dozens of people, told her he thought she was crazy.
Instead, Smith is an actress, playwright, and drama professor, and in this room she put together "Fires in the Mirror," a one-woman show about last year's violent clash between African-Americans and Hasidic Jews in the Crown Heights section of New York City. The show has drawn an Obie award and critical acclaim, not least because of its originality: Smith interviewed people about Crown Heights and then knit together almost 30 excerpts from the interviews into a 90-minute performance.
So the words of "Fires in the Mirror" are not Smith's; they are Carmel Cato's (the father of a 7-year-old boy who died under the wheel of a car driven by a Hasid) and Norman Rosenbaum's (the brother of a young Hasidic man who was fatally stabbed by 20 black youths hours after the Cato incident).
Other words belong, or once belonged, to activist and academic Angela Davis, author and feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin, rabbis, and reverends. There are young black men and Jewish housewives from Crown Heights, as well as the Rev. Al Sharpton, who helped lead some of the agitations in the wake of the deaths.
Smith sits on a folding chair in her ballroom of creation and rehearsal and explains that "Fires" is part of a series of similar works about American character. The earlier pieces helped win her a one-year fellowship at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute, which is why she found herself unraveling the individual truths of Crown Heights in a Harvard hall. Last week's single Cambridge performance was a presentation to her Bunting colleagues. The show is running at New York's Joseph Papp Public Theater until Aug.
She says of her tape-recorded researches, "I'm not interviewing for information. I'm interviewing for character. So I really don't care what a person says. They could say the alphabet, read the phone book - I'm interested in how it comes out.
"Who they are lives in ... the how of speech, rather than the what, the process of speech rather than the result.... The process is always organic so it brings you closer to a person's heart and that's what I'm trying to reiterate, is the heart."
The thematic and dramatic force of Smith's "Fires" resides in the process. One can imagine the play as a narrator-less public television documentary, a series of soundbites edited together. Somehow Smith's sharp, often funny renditions of her characters free them from the baggage that a viewer might associate with a person - or a person's color or religion - and focus attention on the words and the sentiment behind them. To call it "heart" is maybe a little trite. What Smith reveals, acting in a white sh irt and black pants, changing characters and accents with a few props and amazing dexterity, is more profound.
In one scene, Smith portrays a grieving Norman Rosenbaum as his wife calls him home from the office to tell him that his brother Yankel has been killed in a riot in New York, thousands and thousands of miles away from their home in Australia. "Are you sure?" Rosenbaum asks.
He pleads again, incredulous: "Are you sure?" The lights go down.
Several scenes later the lights come up on Smith's Reverend Sharpton. "We are dealing with a complete outrage," he rails, where a group of people can cause the death of a young black child and "walk away like they just stepped on a roach."
On comes Jewish Crown Heights resident Roz Malamud, who sounds like a veteran when she talks about life behind the cordon of police who protected her house from rioters and kept blacks from Jews and Jews from blacks at the peak of the Crown Heights tension. She is frank about saying that although she knows her neighbors, "We don't mingle socially because of the differences in food and behavior and what have you." But nobody, she says, intentionally runs down a small child. "It's just not done.... It was an accident."
S. MALAMUD'S son was in the then Soviet Union during the Crown Heights incident - which coincided with the short-lived coup d'etat. "When I heard from him I told him, `Stay in Russia. You'll be safer where you are,' " even though tanks were rolling in the streets of Moscow. "And he did," says Malamud. "And he was."
When the house lights come up in Radcliffe's Agassiz Theater, Smith opens the room to questions, which is part of the Bunting routine. The first man to speak addresses himself to the audience and its "hostility." Smith's renditions leave room for some unself-conscious laughter at people's extremities of manner or speech or opinion - laughter one might not allow oneself if an actor weren't playing the person in question. But this man says the laughter can only be due to the "self-hating" of Jews and black s in the audience and to white Christians who find Jews and blacks "insufferable."
The crowd stiffens, and several people prepare to respond. The laughter is "of bonding and not of ridicule," says one woman. Another puts it simply: "I'm not offended." And a third woman thanks Smith for leading by example, for "putting so many voices in one body."