The play captures the human drama from the highly charged, out-of-control situation in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, over three days of rioting in August of 1991. One of the play's many apoplectic characters says, "There ain't no justice," in response to another character describing separate groups of angry mourners for both Gavin Cato and Yankel Rosenbaum, with each group regarded as being "at a political rally rather than a funeral."
Another character talks of "the situation that moved from simplicity to sophistication...to become a powder keg." It is fascinating to hear and watch as each character reflected that powder keg experience uniquely. The play revealed that each one of us is, in fact, the accumulation of our life's experiences, at any given moment in time.
As the viewer watches the rumors spread, there is the realization that, "There always is the story. And then always there is the story about the story."
In a sense, Fires in the Mirror shows how one story is transformed and extended by the Crown Heights citizens into other stories, with each story being somewhat new, usually nuanced, and uniquely shaped by the circumstances surrounding the story-teller's accumulated life experiences. The accumulation is each individual's life. No other individual in the whole world can possibly have the exact same accumulation of experiences. That's a practical example of what diversity looks like.
In a certain sense, all involved are at fault in creating the riots. In quite another sense, the play makes clear that no one is at fault, because at any moment the community is prone to erupt into the confusion and violence that comes from individual bafflement and fear from an unexpected occurrence. In this case the occurrence is the auto crash leading to the murder that evening. The play says it is hard to assign blame. No one but no one wanted to have seven-year-old Cato killed in the auto accident. That evening, the teenagers didn't really want to kill Yankel in retaliation. Rather they were reacting, by automatically and unthinkingly expressing their anger and their oppressively inarticulate grief through knee-jerk violence.
Compelling--that one word describes the play's environmental aesthetic of eruption, noise, and confusion, all of which lead by the end to some clarity, yes, but also to stupefied and inexplicable human silence. That muted end result, the play shows, comes from a lack of absolute certainty regarding something important yet ultimately mysterious.
There is a great deal to be said for undertaking an exploration of the meaning in the moral ambiguity and confusion prevailing within the conflicted Brooklyn neighborhood, the confusion initiated by the two understandable, if terrible, deaths. In this instance, one might ask this: If we are not to assign blame, then what is the human alternative in these particular circumstances of murder leading to the madness of mass mayhem.
Prehaps after all it is forgiveness.
As the audience listens to each interpretation of the unfolding story--of what next happened and why--viewers comes to see that each point of view has some validity. There is never merely two sides to a story, that proverbial and simplistic black and white dichotomy. Humans are too complex for easy categorization into a "this" or a "that" camp or an "us vs. them" position. In truth there are often 10 or 15 sides to a story...at least.
The basis of each character's expressed perspective seems to derive from each character's absolute, even dogmatic, belief in the virtue and rightness of his or her own special position. And that "to-the-death" view necessarily derives from each character's accumulated life experiences in these our troubled and conflicted times of racial and religious tension. In a limited sense, that's a kind of certainty in a very uncertain world. It's the sort of certainty that comes from an individual's unquestioned belief in lived experience. But in a clearly profound way, the play asks the viewer to expand the cultural and social understandings of "lived experience" and what might result from external expressions of that lived experience.
Yet it is true that no virtuous act is as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of acceptance and love, which is forgiveness.
For me, the play brings into dramatic relief that idea of forgiveness as one humane way--whether in Crown Heights and elsewhere--of dealing with cynicism and despair. Those two attitudes of hopelessness seem automatically sometimes to snap into being from the confusion of unresolved social and moral ambiguity.
Forgiveness is one answer to the mess. Genuine forgiveness is one expression that can help relieve seemingly irreconcilable tension and conflict. Forgiveness is usually tough--that much we reasonably know. Forgiveness demands courage, heart.
Jim Boushay Metro Chicago Resources Unlimited Foundation