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Watching the new drama by Donja R. Love, it’s hard to avoid feeling that the playwright was checking off items on a list. Following Sugar in Our Wounds as the second part of a planned trilogy “exploring queer love through black history,” the play is receiving its world premiere in a powerfully acted production at the Atlantic Theater Company.
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.
Set in the fall of 1963 “somewhere down South, where the sky is on fire,” the two-hander takes place in the kitchen of the home of Charles (Khris Davis), a preacher working in the Civil Rights movement, and his wife Olivia (DeWanda Wise), who actually writes all of his speeches. Olivia is clearly deeply disturbed by the violence surrounding her, illustrated by the glowing red sky and frequent loud sounds of explosions.
“I keep hearing them bombs,” she says mournfully to God. “When will it stop?”
When Charles returns home after a brief work trip, the passion between the two is made evident in their lusty interactions and quick visit to the bedroom. But their playful sexuality masks serious issues in the relationship. Olivia is pregnant, but she knows that her marriage isn’t working and asks God to take the baby back.
After she encounters evidence of Charles cheating on her while on the road, a serious argument ensues in which he accuses her of being in love with another woman, producing a series of letters addressed to “Ruby” that he found under a floorboard. But the reality of Olivia’s secret relationship turns out to be much more complicated.
The title, Fireflies, is a reference to the souls of black children making their way to heaven, but the play strains under the weight of its forced poeticism and awkward transitions. The work barely has room to breathe, with the playwright delivering an emotional whiplash-inducing series of plot revelations and reversals that stretch credibility to the breaking point. The evening has the feel of a timeline of Civil Rights milestones tied into domestic melodrama. There are powerful moments, to be sure, but the whole adds up to less than the sum of its parts.
It’s no fault of the actors, who deliver persuasive performances that are all the more impressive under the circumstances. As he previously demonstrated with his memorable turn as a Jack Johnson-like boxer in the Lincoln Center production of The Royale, Davis has physical presence and charisma to spare. And Wise, currently starring as Nola Darling on the Netflix adaptation of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, is absolutely riveting as the tortured Olivia, who has deep misgivings about bringing a child into a world wracked by racial hatred and violence.
Director Saheem Ali has delivered a stylish production, making haunting use of sound, lighting and projection effects to convey the turmoil of the period. But while there’s no denying its noble intentions and theatrical and thematic ambition, Fireflies fails to take flight.
Venue: Linda Gross Theater, New York
Cast: Khris Davis, DeWanda Wise
Playwright: Donja R. Love
Director: Saheem Ali
Set designer: Arnulfo Maldonado
Costume designer: Dede Ayite
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Music and sound designer: Justin Ellington
Projection designer: Alex Basco Koch
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company
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