It’s 1963 and Olivia finds herself battling not only the bombs killing colored folk in houses, cars, and churches throughout the American South, but also the bombs going off in her head.
Donja R. Love’s Fireflies, which opened at Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater last night, is the second play in Love’s trilogy exploring queer love at pivotal moments in African-American history. However, while the play is rife with the passions, struggles, and sacrifices of the civil rights movement, Olivia’s identity as a queer woman takes a backseat to the perhaps too many other themes being tackled within the piece.
Olivia and her husband Charles, a civil rights activist and man of God, live in an American South ridden with violence towards people of color. The complimenting lighting and projection design by David Weiner and Alex Basco Koch respectively, along with beautiful music and a sound design by Justin Ellington, transition us between scenes with an affectingly bright red sky that settles into sunrise or sunset on the couple’s kitchen (scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado). As the setting states, "... the sky is on fire."
Olivia serves as her husband’s muse and voice, writing his sermons and coaching him through their delivery, as their phone repeatedly rings with bad news of friends and colleagues who have been ruthlessly and unjustly murdered. Newly pregnant, Olivia does not know if she is able to bring a child into such a cruel world and after learning more about her husband’s actions, is losing faith that the movement is truly effecting change.
"What is hope? How can you see it when your eyes are filled with tears?" We hear Olivia’s words out of Charles’ mouth, as Love examines the lack of voice given to colored women in 1960s America. Charles praises Olivia for her grace, talent, and even likens her to God, while still commanding that his wife act “womanly” (by his definition of the word) and understand her place in the world.
In her moments of hopelessness, Olivia often writes to Ruby, a mysterious woman who she hasn’t been able to forget. Charles’ discovery of Ruby is the linchpin for much of the action of the play, however, the fact that Ruby is a woman feels inconsequential to the arc of the story; the same action could have followed a discovery of letters written to another man. As the middle piece in a trilogy exploring queer love, I had hoped for further exploration of Olivia’s identity as a queer woman during such a trying time in African-American history.
For all of the likeness drawn between God and colored women, Olivia’s full embrace of her “holiness” felt unearned. By the end of the play, Olivia’s relationship with her husband has become so fraught and she has endured so much that I found it hard to follow her journey towards empowerment. The pain and suffering that she experiences is not balanced by the amends and continues to break her down rather than build her up. In fact, I question that she ever really does find her own voice, as many of her final decisions are made not for her, but for others. Olivia’s rallying sermon is motivated by honor, praise and a continued need for her husband; he remains the impetus for most of her final actions. While a beautiful speech and a hopeful conclusion, it seemed in contrast with the dreams of a woman looking to escape from the constraints that race, gender, and sexuality shackle her within.
Still, Khris Davis and DeWanda Wise give impassioned and emotional performances, with many beautiful moments between them staged by director Saheem Ali, including one particularly entrancing dance sequence with choreography by Raja Feather Kelly, and the themes Donja R. Love is exploring within the play sadly feel as relevant to 2018 as they were in 1960s America.
(Photo by Ahron R. Foster)
What the popular press says...
"I was moved by Mr. Love’s willingness to imagine, amid the terror of the times and also the shipshape domesticity of the Grace kitchen as rendered in Arnulfo Maldonado’s set design, other kinds of lives than the ones that history books offer. And as embodied by the fine performers here, under the direction of Saheem Ali, those lives really do seem alive."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"The play's moments of light wink out well before the final curtain; in Love’s universe, fireflies don’t shine for long."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York
"Fireflies deals with issues of infidelity, rape, same-sex love, abortion and domestic abuse, just to name a few. Add to that references to the 1963 Birmingham church bombing in which four little girls were killed and plot elements recalling the FBI's surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the tragic case of Emmett Till, and the play emerges as one seriously overstuffed 90-minute drama. And I haven't even begun talking about the heavy-handed symbolism."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
External links to full reviews from popular press...