REVIEW: "Fireflies" — South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

"I keep hearing these bombs! When will it stop!"

As the Federal holiday, “Martin Luther King Jr. Day” looms right around the corner — this Monday to be exact — many Americans will observe the holiday by recovering from the previous three. Others, especially baby-boomer minorities, whose lives have been touched by this great man, will reflect on a more somber time in our nation’s history, when their fight for simple, human rights and equality was an era of prejudice and bloodshed.

Interestingly enough, South Coast Repertory is in the middle of its run with the metaphorical play, “Fireflies,” playing through January 26th, written by Donja R. Love and directed by Lou Bellamy, which follows a middle-aged couple, inspired by the tenacious Coretta Scott King and her larger-than-life husband, Martin Luther King, Jr., in a storytelling that seems half soap-opera and half sermon.

It's 1963 and four little African-American girls have just been killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, and, from Olivia’s porch, somewhere in the Jim Crow South, the sky is on fire.

But what follows is not so much a searing examination of that real-life tragedy, but an overwrought domestic drama full of empowering language, combined with a set of circumstances so earnestly dire that it often borders on the salacious. It feels like going to church — the kind of church where the minister thunders and rhapsodizes, aiming both to appall and exalt.

That evangelical fervor in Love’s language springs partly from context. The play centers around a stormy 48 hours in the life of a preacher, active in the civil-rights movement, and his pregnant wife, the unfulfilled, fiery intellect who is the sole force behind his powerful orations.

Husband Charles (Lester Purry - Natl Tour: “Othello;” “Thurgood”) is a virile, charismatic community leader, a star in the civil rights movement, called upon with horrible consistency to preach at the funerals of black men, women, and children killed by white supremacist violence. His wife, Olivia (Christiana Clark – Off-Broadway: “Pure Confidence;” “How to Catch Creation”), waits at home while Charles is away, keeping house and doing the legwork, and brain work behind his ministry. But Olivia’s ability to play the brave, supportive spouse is cracking.

As the ninety minute act begins to tick by, she stands tense and exhausted on her front porch, surrounded by red, rolling sky, pulling on a cigarette and staring into the void. She speaks aloud a letter she’s writing to someone called Ruby, then falters, turns the paper over, and begins to write to God instead (Love’s play features an epigraph from Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” and the novel’s influence is present throughout, especially in Olivia’s apostrophes to God). The sky rumbles and flashes. “God,” she pleads, “I keep hearing these bombs. When will it stop?”

Olivia has taken the seemingly endless violence of the outside world into her body, and Director Bellamy and his designers have done an ingenious job of turning that process of painful assimilation back around. They’ve built and scored a space that physicalizes Olivia’s trouble in her mind. Vicki Smith’s set envelops Grace’s kitchen as a realistically furnished island in a sea of empty space, surrounded by a very large slice of curving backdrop where Projections Designer Jeffrey Elias Teeter, along with Video Programmer Abraham Lopez, gives us swirls of sky, often bloody in color and disturbed by the flicker of imagined — or, perhaps real — bombs.

Scott W. Edwards’ sound design elegantly merges strains of soul music with the threatening hum and thunder of both Olivia’s and the world’s cruel disquiet. As much love and labor as Charles and Olivia have put into it, their home can’t keep that world out. Where they exist at all, their walls are permeable, and the pain seeps in. “It seems,” Charles shivers, “like death is always greeting a colored person at their front door.”