The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan on September 15, 1963, killing four young girls and injuring more than twenty other people. Set in the few days between that bombing and the girls’ funerals, Donja R. Love’s Fireflies is a tight look at a marriage beset from without by the grinding, constant strain of the violence against African Americans and from within by rancors and resentments long buried and now brought into the light. Charles Emmanuel Grace (Khris Davis), reverend and civil rights leader (a stand-in for Martin Luther King, Jr.; as King did in real life, Grace will speak at the funeral for the children killed in the Birmingham bombing—and he also shares some of King’s personal vices), is a major public face of the movement. His wife, Olivia (DeWanda Wise), is the power behind Grace’s public persona: the keeper of his schedule, the curator of his appearances, and the writer of his renowned speeches and sermons. But Olivia, pregnant and both terrified and furious at the thought of bringing a black child into these vicious times, is cracking under the weight of the world and the pressure of the secrets she’s suppressed—to the point where her pregnancy is triggering visceral hallucinations of explosions. (These explosions, albeit gorgeously rendered in David Weiner’s lighting design and Alex Basco Koch’s projections, are the play’s only touch of the surreal, a touch that integrates uncomfortably.)
Fireflies is the middle piece in the Love* Plays trilogy, a trio of thematically connected pieces that explore Queer Love* at pivotal moments in Black history: the era of slavery (Sugar in Our Wounds, seen at Manhattan Theater Club earlier this year, also directed by Saheem Ali), the civil rights movement (Fireflies), and Black Lives Matter (In the Middle, not yet produced). As a nuanced portrait of a combusting marriage—where the husband wears a prominent public face but finds safety in the arms of the wife he’s loved since childhood, while the wife is asked time and again to suppress her voice, her ambitions, her body (bearing a child she’s never wanted), even her own sexual identity to the needs of not just her husband but the political movement of which her husband is the face, until these constant acts of erasure threaten to destroy her—Fireflies is passionate and poignant. Davis and Wise burn brightly, matching well in their depictions of two vibrant, intensely physical people who do feel genuinely for each other but are also unable to be fully honest, gradually stripping away layer after layer of emotion to get to quiet, heartfelt truths. And Love and director Saheem Ali bring a wistful, feather-light touch to their exploration of Olivia’s barely conscious queer desire.
In its portrayal of the larger world in which Charles and Olivia exist, though, Fireflies feels rote and unevolved, lacking all the nuance of the relationship between them. There’s something excessively literal about their discussions of politics, too much explicit discussion about being “the face of the Movement” and working “to make things better for the next generation” without ever feeling a lived-in sense of how that movement exists in their community, in their families. There are public stakes for them but no sense of how they came to have this place of prominence. There’s too much reliance on clunky exposition, too, from key plot points coming via one-sided telephone conversations to Liv’s writing letters to God as an outlet for her emotions. (Even when the content is effective—one of the play’s most harrowing moments comes when Liv describes an encounter she has with a doctor who takes advantage of her desperation—the device feels uninspired.)
The letters to God feel especially frustrating because they blunt the impact of another set of letters that stand at the play’s emotional core: letters Liv has been writing covertly throughout her marriage to Ruby, a New York activist whom Liv met when she came to hear Charles preach. Ruby is Liv’s cherished confidante and deepest secret all at once: a thread connecting her to an alternate life she never had the opportunity to fully explore; a source of a physical desire whose optimism juxtaposes poignantly against the way she feels trapped in her body by her pregnancy. When Liv is sent evidence of Charles’s infidelity, Charles throws back in her face the knowledge of her hidden letters. Both his betrayals and the ugly contempt with which he talks of Ruby and her “sickness” cut Liv to the core, and all the secrets that have been mushrooming under the joyous surface of their marriage start to bubble out.
The piece fittingly ends, as it begins, with Liv alone, grappling with both her need for hope and her resignation to loss. For while Charles may be the face of the civil rights movement, Liv is the heart of the play. Charles is charismatic, charming, a natural leader, all of which he takes into battle against a world that will bomb a church and kill four little girls. But Liv has to fight another battle on top of that one: a battle in her own home and her own mind, for every scrap of her selfhood and her voice. It’s a credit to Love, Ali, and Wise’s rich performance that Fireflies never loses sight of her journey and her struggle.