At a time when dogma, denial, and dishonesty make open discussion of racial and ethnic conflicts nearly impossible, Anna Deavere Smith looks America straight in the eye and shows these long-festering problems in all their horrifying complexity. Emulating the techniques of Emile Zola (who took notes on everything he saw, heard, and tasted) and Studs Terkel (who did Zola one better by using a tape recorder), Smith interviews people to create compelling one-woman shows with multiple characters. For Fires in the Mirror, for example, she spoke with people about the Crown Heights riot in August 1991: the father of the boy killed by the rabbi's car, the brother of the rabbinical student murdered a few minutes later, a member of the Hasidic community who seemed oblivious to the rising racial tensions, a local minister who seemed to relish the possibility that this riot would be the first of many. From these interviews she shaped an evening's worth of monologues, then played everyone, carefully re-creating each person right down to speech patterns, nervous gestures, and eccentric pauses—a technique that speaks volumes. A representative of the Nation of Islam smacks his sugar packet so violently against the table, for example, that you feel the rage beneath his soothing, honey-coated words. Smith's approach is also emblematic of the kind of empathy essential to healing these old wounds. Conversational Placements, the piece she's performing here, excerpts segments from Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and adds a variety of other portraits. Art Institute of Chicago, Arthur Rubloff Auditorium, 111 S. Michigan (enter at east entrance on Columbus), 443-3800. Friday, May 12, 7 PM. $22.50.