What do we call the period in which we find ourselves? Pre-post-pandemic, perhaps? For theaters at least, it’s a time of great tension mixed with great promise.
Pandemic pressures are forcing smaller productions, not only financial shortfalls due to shutdowns and low audience numbers, but also because the larger the cast, the more likely a COVID diagnosis is to interrupt rehearsals or to work.
Additionally, theatrical programming may well experience the peak influence of the murder of George Floyd, with a focus on redressing racial injustice and lack of stage representation. From Broadway to every regional theater across the country, we learn about the quite extraordinary array of young black playwrights at work today. I wouldn’t say it’s a golden age of black drama yet, but it certainly feels like a precursor. When it comes to developing the art of playwriting, there’s simply no substitute for seeing your plays produced, not just once but many times. The second and third productions of plays provide writers with greater insight into the adaptability of form, combined with a deeper understanding of their own artistic voice.
“Fireflies” at Northlight seems the perfect example of this moment. First produced in New York in 2018’s distant past, it’s a two-person drama comprised of personal political intrigue involving violence against black children, gender roles, homosexuality, abortion, mental health, alcoholism, domestic violence, and I may be missing one or two more.
If that sounds a bit too much for two characters, it is, but using a clever blend of naturalism and expressionism, playwright Donja R. Love weaves these themes into 95 compelling minutes that at times beautifully express the psychological weight about those who seek to maintain people’s optimism and hope in the midst of unrelenting violence and grief.
Set in September 1963, immediately after the Birmingham church bombing that killed four African-American girls, “Fireflies” features a complex marital relationship between an inspirational African-American preacher Charles (Al’Jaleel McGhee) and his wife, Olivia (Chanel Bell). Charles may be the emerging voice of the civil rights movement, but it’s Olivia who writes all of his speeches, coaches him on their pronunciation, and determines where and when he’s going to deliver them.
This dynamic alone provides a lot of tension. Olivia feels a gnawing loss of self as she writes deeply felt words for someone else to speak, and Charles’ anger tends to emerge when Olivia plays on her insecurity of needing someone else’s words. another to play.
This mutual need keeps them together and keeps them apart, making these sequences more interesting than when Love turns us to marital infidelity. Fidelity issues take a few twists – the play is part of a trilogy Love wrote about queer love at key times in black history – but aspects of this guideline feel predictable while others seem too abstract. The most forced plot point involves letters that become a key bargaining point between Charles and Olivia, with Love ramping up and down the potency of their emotional significance from scene to scene.
Under Mikael Burke, Bell and McGhee deliver excellent performances. McGhee captures Charles’ charisma as well as his demons.
But from beginning to end, it’s really Olivia’s game, and it’s in her spirit that Love leads us.
Bell skillfully displays the heavy toll of emotional suppression and expression. These passionate, poetic and optimistic speeches that Olivia writes become more and more difficult. It struggles with visions of bombings and burning skies, highlighted by the design team here, with sound design by Christie Chiles Twillie earning special mention. Bell clarifies that these visions, which come to him suddenly and unpredictably, reflect both understandable trauma and unbearable premonitions. After all, she’s the one who answers the phone, and every time it rings, we anticipate there may be another grieving mother on the phone, whose confidante and comforter Olivia must become. We also learn early on that Olivia is pregnant and, for various reasons, including her sense of doom, does not wish to be.
There are so many things that work in “Fireflies”. It’s almost a big play, and it certainly makes me want to learn more about Love’s other work (his play “Sugar in the Wound” was produced by First Floor Theater in 2019) and see what he will do in the future.
But the variety of plot points isn’t always compelling, and the story, metaphor, and style are never quite cohesive for the necessary payoff. Much like Olivia, Love seems drawn forcefully toward hope and tragedy, an unresolved quality in “Fireflies” that captures a sophistication and depth, but also exhibits a confused emotional response.