DOWNERS GROVE – Twenty-seven years ago, an incident in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., made national headlines and placed a spotlight on the growing racial tensions across America.
Rioting took place after two children of Guyanese immigrants were accidentally struck by a car driven by an Orthodox Jew. One of the children, 7-year-old Gavin Cato, died instantly. His cousin Angela Cato was severely injured.
During the ensuing riots,Yankel Rosenbaum, a Hasidic rabbinical student, was stabbed and killed in what appeared to be an act of retaliation.
A group of students at Downers Grove South High School will recount the tragic incident and its impact on the community during the school's Black History Month play, "Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities." The production will be presented at 7 p.m. Feb. 2 and 3 at the high school, 1436 Norfolk St.
Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for seniors. Admission is free for all Downers Grove South and North students with a student ID. Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance at the school's activities office.
The production features 11 cast members, each who will take on two roles. Some of the performers are veteran thespians while others are newcomers to the stage.
"It's all about community and how community helps shape and identify people," said Nathaniel Haywood, the play's director and a language arts teacher at the school.
Haywood said the performance will make more people aware of the incident and its impact on race and cultural relations.
"Everyone I talked to about it was unfamilar with the story," he said.
The play originally was a one-woman show, and it draws on a series of more than 50 interviews with Crown Heights residents, politicians, activists, religious leaders, gangs, street dwellers, victims and perpetrators. It is considered an example of the genre known as verbatim theater.
Haywood said students understand the serious nature and potential impact of the performance.
"I definitely think they approach it with a high level of seriousness," he said. "They felt a sense of gravity with it."
This is the fourth year the school has featured a Black History Month production.
"We used to do more of a presentation style," Haywood said.
Students would do individual performances such as readings, songs and speeches that related to black history.
"This is a different path to take," Haywood said. "I do think it can be more impactful."
Turnout for the performances is expected to be smaller than attendance for one of the school's annual plays, but that does not diminish its impact, Haywood said.
"The audience we do get responds very strongly," he said.