Instructor's Teaching Experience:
This was an interesting experience because, for our first day with this text, I asked students to bring two possible props that could be used in a performance of this play. The response I got was a tone of emails asking me “what play?” They were reading the text, but they could not recognize it as a play or a theater production. This actually made for a really great opening discussion about why we, as a class, did not recognize this as a play. Works great to discuss historical context, archives, and different media forms. It’s also a great piece for discussing biases in reporting and speaker credibility.
This necessarily begins with the questions: How do you see Fires in the Mirror working as a play? How does it depart from what you expect or understand as theater? I do this before even discussing what documentary theatre is. The slides below have a fast-and-loose intro. For a really good introduction to the history of Documentary Theater in America, see the American Theatre article. The first day working with this text, I give each group one section that they will be working with for the entire day. First, we look at the scenes and interpret what is important in the scene. They are asked to look closely at the language, punctuation, and setting. Then they are asked to say how they would perform the section. Then we listen to Anna Deavere Smith discuss character and her approach to ‘character’ and perform character (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KR8SwPmCFd4). Many of the ‘characters’ interviewed and performed in Fire in the Mirror are well known (such as George C. Wolfe and Ntozake Shange. So, after hearing Smith talk about and perform character, students research their character. They have to create a character profile using multiple sources. They are asked to find what they look like, what they were doing in 91, their politics, and their personal history. Then, after learning about the character, they are asked to reinterpret the scene with their new understanding of the character.
There are many micro events that contribute to the Crown Heights incident and many stories covered in the aftermath. During this activity, students are looking at specific excerpts in the text, media footage, and newspaper clippings that cover the same incident. They get to look at some of the background, as well as examine what is different in the various coverage of the same event. What does the newspaper leave out, what does the video footage show, what does Deavere Smith focus on in this section of the text.