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Fireflies, the second work in Donja R. Love’s The Love* Plays trilogy, opens the season at New York’s Atlantic Theater Company. A combustible tale positioned at the intersection of unspoken desire and unshakeable faith in the Jim Crow South, it represents a major step forward for the talented Philadelphia-born playwright.
Love — whose bio lists, among other achievements, a victory in the 2011 Philadelphia Adult Grand Slam Poetry Championship — gained considerable attention this year. He started 2018 by winning the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award, endowed by and named for the late playwright and director Arthur Laurents.
Fireflies is the second major New York production of Love’s work in less than six months. Sugar in Our Wounds, the first part of his trilogy, premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club over the summer.
Both plays concern queer representation throughout the history of black life in America — the former play was set against the backdrop of the Civil War, as two male slaves explore their attraction to each other and their place in the world. Fireflies moves the action ahead a century, as African Americans fight to cement their civil rights and equal protections. (The trilogy’s third play, In the Middle, has not yet been produced).
Love sets the scene “somewhere down South, where the sky is on fire,” and the play lives up to that galvanizing, poetic description. The humble kitchen set, rendered with pinpoint specificity by Arnulfo Maldonado, is ringed by a bank of blood-red clouds, realized through David Weiner’s febrile lighting and Alex Basco Koch’s projections. The sky might look blue to Reverend Charles Emmanuel Grace (Khris Davis), but to his wife and right hand, Olivia (DeWanda Wise), the burning expanse is no metaphor.
A ringer for Martin Luther King Jr., charismatic Charles bears the weight of the world: he’s been asked to preach at the funeral of the four little girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. (Love deftly blends real and imagined events throughout the play). Olivia serves as his speechwriter, her brilliant mind issuing forth oration as she prepares dinner, washes dishes, and tends the washing machine.
Olivia’s gender and position as a preacher’s wife hamper her full self-expression. She must not seek credit for her husband’s dazzling words. Her ministry lies at home, and in motherhood. Yet she cannot set aside her creative spark — or the spark of passion she feels for Ruby, a New York activist who once came to hear Charles preach. When she isn’t composing speeches, she writes letters to her chaste object of desire, describing her longing for a physical realization of their love.
Few mainstream plays have centered the experience of a black queer woman, much less one depicted with such clarity. Love makes Olivia a multifaceted character who wrestles with love for her husband, commitment to her movement, faith in her religion, and conviction in her devotion to what Ruby represents. Wise’s deeply sympathetic performance locates the resolve that drives Olivia forward, easily grounding her emotional shifts, from happiness to anguish and back again.
Davis, a Camden, New Jersey, native who has appeared in several Philadelphia productions, makes a worthy scene partner, showing the audience Charles’s outward brio and the uncertainty lurking just beneath. Together they suggest a couple who share deep love but can hurt each other just the same. (Love incorporates a subplot involving the FBI sending Olivia a recording of Charles cheating on her, another detail taken from King’s real life). Neither character is ever reduced merely to a type.
Saheem Ali’s direction can sometimes seem needlessly arch, particularly for a play that deals so heavily in symbolism and lyrical, rhythmic language. A scene where Charles and Olivia — in the middle of a fight — break into a dance looks too stylized. (Raja Feather Kelly is the choreographer). The pacing sometimes slackens as the play moves toward its affecting denouement.
But nothing can dim Love’s singular voice. I hope to see work from this talented native son on local stages in the near future.
What, When, Where
Fireflies. By Donja R. Love, Saheem Ali directed. Atlantic Theater Company. Through November 11, 2018, at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th Street, New York. (212) 691-5919 or atlantictheater.org.
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