Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 11, $45-$65
Donja R. Love’s Fireflies is a heartbreaking, eerily relevant drama about bigotry and hate, desire and passion. The second in the Afro-Queer playwright’s trilogy of the black experience in America — Sugar in Our Wounds dealt with slavery, while the forthcoming In the Middle takes place during the Black Lives Matter movement — Fireflies is set in the fall of 1963, at the rise of the civil rights movement. Reverend Charles Emmanuel Grace (Khris Davis) has just given a speech in Birmingham, Alabama, about the four black girls who were killed in the 16th St. Baptist Church bombing. (The preacher’s name, but not the character itself, was inspired by Harlem evangelist Charles Manuel “Sweet Daddy” Grace, who died in 1960.) A big, bold man, Charles comes home to his wife, Olivia Grace (DeWanda Wise), who was just sneaking a smoke. Olivia is deeply troubled by what’s happening in the world, her body suddenly shuddering at certain moments. “You still seeing fire and hearing bombs in your head?” Charles asks, and she answers yes. It’s as if she can feel every tragedy as it happens. Meanwhile, the sky, which hovers in the background throughout the play, behind Arnulfo Maldonaldo’s note-perfect 1960s kitchen set, does indeed often become overcast in a bloodred color. And slowly, what appears to be a beautiful, natural love between husband and wife becomes something else as they talk about having a child and each reveals a dark secret, threatening their supposedly idyllic life.
Fireflies features terrific performances from Davis (The Royale, Sweat) and Wise (She’s Gotta Have It, Sunset Baby) as a couple struggling to preserve their family in times of crisis, troubles that Olivia can’t shake. “Last night I had a dream the sky wasn’t on fire anymore,” she says. “The sky was filled with . . . fireflies. . . . So I start to pray. I ask, what does it all mean? And I hear him. I hear God. His voice is real faint. I was struggling to hear Him. But I do. He says, ‘Each firefly is one of my colored kids flying home.’ That scare me even more because it was so many. I would much rather have fire. I’m used to that. I’m used to the bombings, and crosses burning, and all of that. I’m not used to seeing God’s children fly home.” That brief monologue captures the immense fear still felt by so many people of color and minorities, especially in light of the neverending shootings in churches, schools, and synagogues across America in the twenty-first century. Directed by Saheem Ali (Sugar in Our Wounds, Kill Move Paradise), the play, which continues at the Atlantic through November 11, features a final monologue that is far too preachy and melodramatic, laying things out too simply, and the scenes in the porch can be physically awkward and jarring. But throughout it all the blue sky keeps turning red, which it still seems to do more than fifty years later.