Review by Brittany Crowell
It’s 1963 and Olivia finds herself battling not only the bombs killing her community 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 the Atlantic 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 ninety minute piece.
Olivia DeWanda Wise and her husband Charles (Khris Davis), 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 the beautiful music and 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 is losing faith that the movement she and her husband have committed their lives to 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 of plays exploring queer love, I was left wishing for further exploration into 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, the play was missing a proper build up to Olivia’s sudden strength and embracing of her “holiness” in the final scene. By the end of the play, Olivia’s relationship with her husband has become so fraught and she has endured so much that her jump between extreme desolation and preaching hope and power was a hard one to make. The pain and suffering that she experiences 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 seems in contrast with the dreams of a woman looking to escape from the constraints of race, gender, and sexuality.
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.
FIREFLIES – Written by Donja R. Love; Directed by Saheem Ali
WITH: Khris Davis (Charles), DeWanda Wise (Olivia)
Sets by Arnulfo Maldonado; costumes by Dede Ayite; lighting by David Weiner; sound and original music by Justin Ellington; projections by Alex Basco Koch; choreography by Raja Feather Kelly; casting by Telsey + Company; production stage manager, Cody Renard Richard; production manager, S.M. Payson. Presented by Atlantic Theater Company, Neil Pepe, artistic director; Jeffory Lawson, managing director; Annie MacRae, associate artistic director; Pamela Adams, general manager. At the Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street); 866-811-4111, atlantictheater.org. Through November 11. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.