All seems tranquil at the outset of Fireflies. We first see Olivia (DeWanda Wise), a black housewife in her well-appointed 1960s kitchen, sneaking a cigarette before her husband Charles (Khris Davis) returns home. But this glancing tableau of domestic mischief proves deceptively light.
In this world premiere of Donja R. Love’s play, directed by Saheem Ali at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, it is the autumn of 1963 “somewhere down South, where the sky is on fire.”
We can see Alex Basco Koch’s projections of clouds that surround Arnulfo Maldonado’s elegant, simple kitchen staging. This sky is like a vividly embracing coat designed by Douglas Sirk at his most paint splash-happy. At its most livid it is as red as blood or deep fire—and it meaningfully surrounds Olivia and Charles.
As political protest and racist brutality happen somewhere beyond her home’s walls, Olivia focuses on preparing an evening meal for her husband, a civil-rights campaigner. She knows where to hide those cigarettes, she knows what he likes to eat; this is her domain. But she also seems unsettled.
Like William Jackson Harper’s Travisville, also off-Broadway and set at a similar time, Love, the recipient of the 2018 Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award, seeks to intersect the personal and political in Fireflies. Pretty soon, we realize that not only is all far from right in the unjust world around them, but also in Olivia and Charles’ marriage. It’s the sheer amount that isn’t right that almost unbalances the play.
In a 90-minute span, the excellent Wise and Davis have a huge amount of material to process and make sense of for us, too much for this critic. The number of secrets and lies within the relationship quickly accrue. The play feels a little stuck in its static battery of revelations.
Remember that first cigarette? Well, it is not only Olivia hiding a habit—so is Charles, and so a major secret is revealed. Also: Olivia is pregnant and says she is terrified to bring a child into a world that will be so unjust for him or her to grow up in. She is contemplating having an abortion.
A note of hope is provided by fireflies, says Olivia; their living patterns give the play not just its title but also its metaphorical heart.
The play’s use of symbol is clear, emphatic, and a little overdone. Those clouds are never more violently colored than when she has one of her crippling headaches: at the beginning we think these headaches are physical manifestations of the racial battles and horrors, the very literal fires and fire-bombings, coloring that red sky.
But the headaches, the fear, is also close to home and very personal. There is a revelation of secret sexuality, and more revelations after that revelation around secret letters and yet more lies. This seems the most incompletely realized sub-plot of the show, because this huge part of the character isn’t explored beyond the means and mechanics of perceived infidelity it means for the marriage.
There is an airlessness to the piling up of complications. This critic wished Wise and Davis had had more time to make sense out of everything besetting their characters; the drama begins to feel a bit like a hair-raising ski-run. The friend I went with noted Olivia’s use of her kitchen sink, and how the play itself threw everything at the couple, and us, including that object.
However, Wise and Davis nimbly negotiate the roller-coaster tonal segues the play demands, especially as we realize how important Olivia is to Charles; it emerges that Charles very literally could not function without her. But, and this is another testament to the sexist bounds of the era, Olivia is not recognized for what she does. Part of her disabling frustration is a sense of a life half-lived and recognized, a life that is a demi-life because of everything she hasn’t done.
As the couple’s relationship comes under roiling strain, news of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham killing four girls reaches them, and Charles is soon heading out into the violent world again.
Tragedy itself will engulf Olivia and Charles. But their sense of mission, the sense of justice that they embody, provide the play with a rousing postscript that some in our audience cheered and applauded, both for what was said and who was saying it. Summoning up those fireflies of the title, like Travisville, here is a resolute cry from history aimed squarely at those in the present.
Fireflies is at the Atlantic Theater Company (Linda Gross Theater), NYC, until November 11.