DeWanda Wise and Khris Davis in ‘Fireflies.’ (Photo: Ahron R. Foster)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Donja R. Love’s Fireflies, having its world premiere at Off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company, takes place “somewhere down South, where the sky is on fire,” in September 1963, right after four young black girls were killed in a bombing at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. Instead of providing a searing examination of this tragic moment in the Civil Rights Movement, however, Fireflies gives us an overwrought domestic drama.
Sex, adultery, lesbianism, egotism, abortion, and other issues fight for dominance in the lives of a charismatic, black preacher, Charles Emmanuel Grace (The Royale, Sweat), and his troubled wife, Olivia (DeWanda Wise, Netflix’s Do the Right Thing.)
The locale is a realistic kitchen designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, set on a platform surrounded by a semicircular drop depicting Alex Basco’s striking projections of looming clouds. As Olivia prepares dinner here, the handsome Charles comes home from Birmingham after delivering a moving speech to the bombing’s mourners. His mood, though, is celebratory, not grieving, so pompously proud is he of his oratory success. He also takes pride in Olivia’s being four months pregnant, although she seems to be holding back on her own joy.
Olivia, psychologically scarred by recent events, has been having visions of fire and hearing bombs. She’s also dreamed about seeing the sky filled with fireflies and hearing God tell her each is “one of my colored kids flying home.” Every now and then, Olivia has a brief seizure during which she imagines bombs exploding, compellingly realized in Justin Ellington’s sound design and David Weiner’s lighting (here and elsewhere among the production’s finest contributions).
Fireflies is the second play in the Afro-Queer playwright’s Love Trilogy (the first was Sugar in Our Wounds) “exploring love through black history.” Regardless of its racially tense backstory, the action keeps tripping over the obstacles to happiness in Charles and Olivia’s shaky marriage. When Charles returns after delivering his eulogy, he can think of nothing but sex; Olivia, randy as she may be, is nonetheless angry about his philandering. And then there’s the fact that Olivia not only writes Charles’s speeches but, to his increasing discomfort, even directs their every intonation.
Meanwhile, Olivia has a smoking problem and Charles a drinking one, while Olivia’s ready to do anything not to bring her colored baby into this cruel world. Additionally, but not finally, Charles finds Olivia’s love letters to a mysterious woman named Ruby. Olivia’s explanation of their existence provides a piece of the puzzle that almost seems squeezed in to fill the “queer” theme slot.
The characters leap from emotional highs to emotional lows, arguing fiercely one minute, dancing erotically the next (choreography by Raja Feather Kelly). Too often, the scenes seem more about themselves than their connection to what comes before and after. Similarly, Love’s mingling of lyrical and naturalistic language occasionally misfires, with some speeches—like what we hear of Charles’s eulogy—too enthralled with evangelical purple platitudes.
Most disturbing is the clumsy exposition, principally its dependence on Olivia’s first-person narratives, such as her spoken letters to Ruby or her conversations with God, which bring to mind The Color Purple and Fiddler on the Roof. An apogee of awkwardness is reached when she rants on and on that if God doesn’t rid her of her baby she’ll do it herself.
Director Saheem Ali gets lots of physically and vocally expressive, even occasionally powerful, acting from Davis and Wise, but, for all their obvious ability, they only fitfully seem like real people. For instance, Wise twice receives very bad news on the phone, but her surprisingly ordinary reactions—not helped by Love’s dialogue—seem more like someone just called to cancel a date than to report a horrid occurrence. (An acting footnote: as is so frequently the case in today’s anti-smoking world, neither actor seems comfortable handling cigarettes.)
Whatever noble destination Fireflies may have, it lacks the wings to fly there.
Atlantic Theater Company
336 W. 20th St., NYC
Through November 11
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, and Theater Life.