Nevertheless, the performances by its two leads leave no doubt that this is a tour de force for two African–American actors at the top of their game. It comes as no surprise that Khris Davis who was introduced to New York in The Royale and later the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat can command an audience’s attention, but the revelation is DeWanda Wise, best known for Spike Lee’s 20-part mini-series, She’s Gotta Have It, who burns up the stage.
Fireflies is the middle work in the author’s Love* Plays trilogy which includes Sugar in Our Wounds (set in 1862 during slavery), and In the Middle (set during the Black Lives Matter movement) which has been workshopped but is awaiting its world premiere. In Fireflies which takes place in the Deep South in September 1963, we meet Olivia, wife to the Reverend Charles Grace, who we discover is the great granddaughter of Henry, the hero of Sugar in Our Wounds.
It is Sunday, September 15, 1963, the day of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where four little African American girls have been killed. While Olivia awaits her husband, a popular star in the Civil Right movement, to return from his ministry to Alabama, she continues to have visions of bombs bursting and fire in the sky ever since she became pregnant. She worries about bringing a child into a world of hate where children are killed by bombing. When Charles returns, they appear happy to see each other and he is back to get some rest and get her speech for him to say at the funeral for the four little girls in Birmingham, the following day.
However, all is not right between them. She is convinced he has been unfaithful while he has been away and he has found love letters that she had been writing for some time to someone named Ruby that he does not know. He finally gets her to admit her feeling for Ruby which he finds distasteful while she counters that she did not know Ruby very long. They argue about his drinking and her smoking and although they have been sweethearts since childhood, they now seem very far apart. He tells her how he defines her role as his wife, she wonders if the sacrifices she has made for the Civil Rights movement and for him have been worth it. And then she tells him that while he is away she is planning on getting rid of this child she does not want.
Part of what grounds Charles Emmanuel Grace is that some of the facts of his life resemble those of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who was invited to speak at the funerals at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. Davis is both charismatic and attractive as Charles. He also makes him a multi-layered personality battling many demons, not only having overcome stuttering as a child. The more we get to know him the more flaws he reveals while at the same time remaining a bigger than life character.
However, it is DeWanda Wise’s impassioned performance as Olivia who drives the play. In this role, she runs the entire gamut of emotions while keeping us guessing as to her true feelings. A feminist without knowing it, her Olivia wants to be taken as an equal and independent person, not just as a wife but as a human being. She delineates their entire relationship and years together in a few brief memories which are both happy and painful for her. She keeps us guessing as to whether she doesn’t want to be a mother due to the state of race relations in America for black people in 1963 or because her feelings make her want to leave Charles for Ruby. Davis’ dynamic performance dominates the stage and makes her an equal sparring partner for Davis whose physical presence alone is much bigger. She grows in stature before our eyes as the play covers its three days in September.
The production team has helped greatly in creating the ambiance of this Southern community, circa 1963. David Weiner’s lighting, Justin Ellington’s sound and Alex Basco Koch’s projections remain a dominant presence throughout the play, both as a metaphor and a literal representation of the climate of the nation. The kitchen surrounded by a porch by Arnulfo Maldonado sets the world of the couple apart from the rest of their community as it seems to float on a platform as if separate from everyone else. Dede Ayite’s sixties costumes are flattering to the performers but both actors are extremely attractive and would probably look good in anything.
Donja R. Love’s overstuffed play is compelling at the same time that it attempts to cover too many topics. However, under Saheem Ali’s assured and tight direction, Khris Davis and DeWanda Wise give dynamic, mesmerizing performances which command attention for the play’s entire length, not an easy feat in a two-character play. And Fireflies will make you want to see the third and last play in the trilogy, In the Middle, which is set in more recent times. For the record, the title Fireflies refers to Olivia’s belief that each one is a Black child being called home to God. The final moments of the play can only be described as magical.
Fireflies (through November 11, 2018)
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.atlantictheater.org
Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission