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Off-Broadway Review: “Fireflies” at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (Through Sunday November 11, 2018)

Photo: Khris Davis and DeWanda Wise in “Fireflies.” Credit: Ahron R. Foster/www.ahronfoster.com
Off-Broadway Review: “Fireflies” at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (Through Sunday November 11, 2018)
By Donja R. Love
Directed by Saheem Ali
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

It is clear from the start of Donja R. Love’s “Fireflies” that Olivia Grace (DeWanda Wise) is among the disconsolate: Olivia is languishing: Olivia’s wounded heart needs healing. There is a fire in Olivia’s soul that counterpoints the fire in the 1963 Fall sky above the home in the Jim Crow South she shares with her preacher-activist husband Charles Emmanuel Grace (Khris Davis). The first words Olivia shares are those from a letter she is writing to the yet unidentified Ruby: “Dear Ruby, It’s been awhile. The sky . . . it’s been burning so bright since you left. It reminds me of you.” And at this point the stage of the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater reverberates with the sounds of exploding bombs as the sky “cracks open and bleeds.” Olivia admits, “I can’t do this.”

Determining what it is Olivia can no longer do is the rich grit of Mr. Love’s engaging new play as is understanding in a deep way what it is Olivia is quite capable of doing. She writes all her husband’s sermons that he delivers in Alabama and elsewhere, assuring Charles is “out doing what [he] is supposed to be doing.” She schedules his appearances and reminds him of his itinerary. She surrenders to his needs and discounts her own needs. What she can no longer do is bring to term a baby she is not sure she wants. What she can no longer do is remain in an unfulfilling marriage to an unfaithful spouse. What she can no longer do is suppress her Queer identity that Ruby – unawares – has disclosed to Olivia after one meeting and has prompted Olivia to write hundreds of love letters which he carefully hides from Charles under a floorboard in the bedroom.

Mr. Love confesses Olivia’s growth and Charles’ emotional decline in language brimming with tropes. The extended metaphors of ‘bombs’ and ‘fireflies’ are carefully developed as they morph into internal dialogue from external threat. Just how that develops is thrilling to listen to and see. For Olivia, her husband’s death (Suicide? Car bomb?) becomes electrifyingly redemptive and sacrificial. Her ability to shift from sermon writer to mesmerizing preacher is a profoundly transformative moment in “Fireflies.” It is difficult not to step into the role of exhorter as Ms. Wise’s Olivia fires up her congregation after returning from Charles’ extended funeral service.

Olivia learns to love herself: to love the choices she makes about her body, her relationships, her sexuality, and her future. Olivia is also determined not to allow her history, nor the history of the Civil Rights Movement to be erased from America’s history. This theme explored in Suzan-Lori Parks’ “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World” is echoed in a unique way by Mr. Love in his “Fireflies” the second installment in Mr. Love’s trilogy of The Love* Plays. In his April 10, 2017 article in “The Lark,” Donja R. Love writes, “The existence of Queer people of color, particularly of African descent, has repeatedly been washed over, or forgotten altogether.” Olivia is not about to be forgotten: neither will the bombs that killed people of color be forgotten.

DeWanda Wise and Khris Davis are electrifying in their roles as Olivia and Charles. Under Saheem Ali’s poignant and surgically precise direction, Ms. Wise and Mr. Davis explore every nerve, every synapse, every heretofore unexplored thought, every previously unanticipated action of their complex characters. Ms. Wise’s Olivia allows herself to grow despite cultural and marital roadblocks. And although it might be more challenging for Mr. Davis to accept his character’s “trifling, forgitful and lowdown” ways (from Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple”), the actor successfully stands up to the protagonist’s explosive spiritual and psychological development. Olivia’s ability to love and her awareness that her child needs to grow up knowing she is God are powerful expressions of her recovered ego strength and self-awareness.

Alex Basco Koch’s meteoric projections and Justin Ellington’s brooding sound and original music fill and surround Arnulfo Maldonado’s stunning open set. David Weiner lights this set with mood-specific pools of wondrous color. And Dede Ayite’s costumes bristle with the sensibility expressed in each scene of the play.

This is not an Everyman’s tale: this is the saga of the Black and Brown and Black-and-Brown-Queer people who continue to experience race-fueled violence at the hands of systemic white racism. This is a tale that needs to ne heard, needs to be reiterated, and needs to find as many other iterations as possible. Olivia preaches, “Our assignment is to fly! We have to fly – as high as we possibly can. We have to soar because the higher we are the better we’ll be at making this world a brighter place.” Donja R. Love’s “Fireflies” takes that assignment seriously and succeeds brilliantly.

FIREFLIES

“Fireflies” stars Khris Davis and DeWanda Wise.

“Fireflies” features scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design by David Weiner, sound design by Justin Ellington, projection design by Alex Basco Koch and casting by Telsey + Company: Adam Caldwell, CSA; Will Cantler, CSA; Karyn Casl, CSA.

“Fireflies” runs at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues) through Sunday November 11, 2018 on the following performance schedule: Tuesday at 7:00 p.m.; Wednesday – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.; Sunday evening performance at 7:00 p.m. on 10/21; Wednesday afternoon performances at 2:00 p.m. on 10/24, 10/31, and 11/7. Tickets for “Fireflies” at $65.00 are available online at www.atlantictheater.org, by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111, or in person at the Linda Gross Theater box office. Running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes without intermission.

Photo: Khris Davis and DeWanda Wise in “Fireflies.” Credit: Ahron R. Foster/www.ahronfoster.com
0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink | Posted by David Roberts on Monday, October 15, 2018