The Rev. Charles Emmanuel Grace, a hero of the Civil Rights Movement, and his pregnant wife Olivia, who writes his stirring sermons for him, seem to find great joy in one another when he lifts her up in the air for an embrace near the beginning of “Fireflies.” In this play by Donja R. Love, the two characters actually have little reason to be happy. They are surrounded by tragedy; it is 1963, and Charles has just come home from Birmingham, Alabama, where four little girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The couple’s apparent happy home life is a sham. Olivia doesn’t want the baby; she doesn’t love Charles; she writes unsent love letters to a woman she met only once, who was murdered shortly afterward. Charles cheats, and drinks.
But for all the pile-up of sorrows for the characters, audiences themselves can find some joy in the production of “Fireflies” at Atlantic Theater directed by Saheem Ali, thanks to the lyrical design and especially to the splendid performances by Khris Davis as Charles and DeWanda Wise as Olivia.
Click on any photograph by Ahron R. Foster to see it enlarged.
“Fireflies” is the second play in Love’s trilogy that he says explores “queer love through black history.” The first, “Sugar in Our Wounds,” was about a relationship between two male slaves during the Civil War. The third will take place during the present era of Black Lives Matter. For this middle play, the “queer love” is muted; her unfulfilled desires certainly help explain why Olivia is at the breaking point. In her mind’s eye, she sees a sky full of blood-red fire and hears the alarming sound of incessant bombing. The design team makes her hallucinations concrete for us, setting the kitchen and porch of a modest house in the South floating amid an abstract sky of thunder and lightning and flickering lights. Olivia also dreams the sky is full of fireflies, and hears God telling her “Each firefly is one of my colored kids flying home.” She writes eulogies for the many funerals at which Charles officiates, and writes to Ruby saying “I’m tired of having to write eulogies for flowers that wilted too soon.” That’s one reason she doesn’t want the baby. “Please take this baby back,” she says in one of her letters to God. “It has no place in this world. I wish it did, but it’s colored so it won’t.”
“Fireflies”takes place over just two days in the life of Charles and Olivia, and just in their home. It’s a shortened time period that is surely meant to heighten the drama, but in truth works to undermine its impact. Incidents and arguments occur, feelings are exposed, secrets revealed, tragedies unfold. The abrupt climax offers what feels like one tragedy too many, and too quickly, without preparing the audience, or allowing us to share in the reaction.
Still, the two performers manage to grab our attention, and keep our sympathy.
Khris Davis, who has shown his versatility and talent as the championship boxer in Royale and the unemployed worker in Sweat (and who now plays Tracy in the TV series Atlanta), makes Charles so appealing that we understand why Olivia is drawn to him, despite all that she says to the contrary. DeWanda Wise, best known as Nola Darling in Spike Lee’s Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It, makes more credible the playwright’s flowery language. Olivia is anguished; she complains a great deal. But Wise makes her deeper than all that. Her long final monologue probably shouldn’t work – much of it is a riff on fireflies — but Wise makes Olivia a preacher on fire, using the cadences of the black church to inspire, to make us feel…if not closer to God, than surely closer to the characters that Love has created.
Written by Donja R. Love; Directed by Saheem Ali
Set design by Arnulfo Maldonado, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design by David Weiner, sound design by Justin Ellington, projection design by Alex Basco Koch
Cast: Khris Davis and DeWanda Wise
Tickets: $66.50 to $86.50
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Fireflies is scheduled to run through November 11, 2018