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A CurtainUp Review

Last night I had a dream . . . The sky was filled with . . . fireflies. For as far as your eyes could see there were fireflies. I didn't know what to do. . . . Seeing fireflies in the sky actually scared me. So I start to pray. I ask, what does it all mean? And I hear . . . God. . . . He says, "Each firefly is one of my colored kids flying home." That scare me even more because it was so many. . . . I'm use to the bombings, and crosses burning, and all of that. I'm not use to seeing God's children fly home.
— Olivia Grace, the formidable spouse of a civil rights activist in the American south of 1963 in Donja R. Love's Fireflies
DeWanda Wise as Olivia and Khris Davis as Charles (Photo: Ahron R. Foster).
One of the most noteworthy of this year's offerings Off-Broadway was Sugar In Our Wounds, the first part of donja R. Love's trilogy The Love* Plays. When that lyrical drama premiered early last summer, the youthful playwright was completing his tenure as a fellow of the Juilliard School's Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program. The Manhattan Theater Club production made it clear that Love is a talent to keep tabs on.

Little more than a calendar quarter later, the Atlantic Theater Company is presenting Fireflies, the middle drama of Love's trilogy. It fulfills the promise of the previous play; but Sugar in Our Wounds, fine as it is, didn't portend the power and insight of Love's richly imagined new work.

The genesis of Fireflies appears to be historical accounts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's surveillance of Martin Luther King under orders from the agency's chief, J. Edgar Hoover. The characters in this two-hander — Charles and Olivia Grace (Khris Davis and DeWanda Wise) — are a fictional clergyman and his wife, both pillars of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, whose domestic life is upended when Olivia receives an audiotape, apparently from the FBI, exposing Charles's infidelity. But Fireflies isn't anything so simple as a mere domestic drama of adultery.

Love has written that the plays of his trilogy offer views of "pivotal moments" in African-American history "through a different lens." Sugar in Our Wounds concerns the days when enslavement of human beings was legal; the third script, not yet mounted in New York, takes place in the Black Lives Matter era. Fireflies depicts with great verisimilitude the angst and pain incurred by leaders in the civil rights movement for their commitment to social progress.

The play opens a few days after the September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. That event, which claimed the lives of four young African-American girls, is a milestone in the history of the civil rights movement and became a galvanizing factor for support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

At the beginning of Fireflies, Olivia and Charles appear to be an ideal couple, happy and productive. He's a conscientious pastor, committed to social activism and political change. She's his erudite partner, organizing his schedule, writing his speeches, serving as his homiletics coach, and otherwise spurring him on.

An initial scene of apparent domestic normalcy is followed by a sequence in which tension between the two escalates as Olivia attempts to prepare the recalcitrant Charles for the speech he's supposed to give at one of the Birmingham funerals. As the play progresses, we discover that the fissures in the couple's relationship are deep and longstanding. For instance, Charles is eager to become a father and Olivia, though pregnant, finds the notion of parenthood repugnant (and increasingly so since the murder of the little girls at the Birmingham church). Her unborn baby, Olivia says, "is that unpleasant present under the Christmas tree that you never play with, that you wish you could pass on to someone else."

Love defines his literary mission as examining "identity by unapologetically dramatizing the multifaceted nuance of Blackness and Queerness — a diverse intersection filled with colorful stories, and a reimaging of monolithic narratives that challenge the white supremacist, heteronormative structures in American culture." His aim in the trilogy, he says, is to take account of "the trauma that Queer, Black folx [sic] have endured" and to focus "on the universal emotion/theme of Love." In light of this, it's hardly a spoiler to acknowledge that same-sex longing is a potent issue in the Graces' marriage. But the details of that dynamic, like the details of the plot in general, are unanticipated and narratively fresh.

Sugar in Our Wounds was punctuated with flourishes of magical realism. Fireflies, by contrast, is Love's tribute to the strain of "kitchen sink realism" in American drama. The play is even set in the Grace's kitchen which, as designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, is fully and intricately equipped. After she serves supper in the initial scene, for instance, Wise scrapes the plates, consolidates the leftovers, and stows them in the 1960s era refrigerator.

Fireflies includes expressionistic elements that illuminate Olivia's emotional states. She hears crashes and visualizes fire bombs (startlingly summoned up by sound designer Justin Ellington, light man David Weiner, and projections designer Alex Basco Koch), which are manifestations of her anxiety about both the blast at the Birmingham church and the prospect of bringing a new life into a brutally racist world. And there are the fireflies of the title, specters from Olivia's dream-life that represent "God's children," such as the girls killed in Birmingham, "flying home”"to heaven. These, too, are represented in the collaborative design work of Maldonado and Weiner.

Under Saheem Ali's sensitive direction, Wise and Davis are compelling as characters who are conflicted, flawed and, most of all, believable. Wise, superb throughout, makes Olivia's final monologue — a tour de force of dramatic writing — a theatrical moment likely to stay with audiences indefinitely. Davis, notably powerful in Sweat two seasons ago, is equally forceful here.

Grace and Charles aren't capable of the saintliness their community expects of them — perhaps no one is. They're good people struggling with human nature and its yens. In this production, each is a remarkable collaboration between an enormously talented actor and a dramatist with originality of vision. Fireflies raises expectations for In the Middle, the final play of Love's aesthetically ambitious trilogy, and his take on our own era.

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Fireflies by Donja R. Love
Directed by Saheem Ali
Cast: Khris Davis (Charles) and DeWanda Wise (Olivia)
Sets: Arnulfo Maldonado
Costumes: Dede Ayite
Lights: David Weiner
Sound & Original Music: Justine Ellington
Projections: Alex Basco Koch
Choreography: Raja Feather Kelly
Production Stage Manager: Cody Renard Richard
Running Time: 90 minutes Presented by Atlantic Theater Company Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street);
>From 9/26/18; opened 10/15/18; closing 11/11/18

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