Updated: Jun 20
"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.”
It’s a play about the landscape of internalized trauma. Its language and design create a fearful panorama, a world where “the sky is on fire,” and hope is envisioned as “a long road covered in heartache” or as “the highest mountain,” on whose steep paths you might well meet death before you reach the summit. The language, however, can seem awfully rich, perhaps deliberately in a play about oratory and faith. We hear parts of three sermons. It is one of the more fascinating aspects of “Fireflies” that Mr. Love makes the rhetoric of the black church into a kind of third character in this two-hander.
The entire narrative takes place in their Alabama kitchen, where secrets geyser out of the ground, then subside, then whoosh up again. Both characters are stuffed with qualities that only emerge when they’re mentioned, sometimes in direct contrast to what we’ve seen of the person so far. Charles drinks openly, Olivia smokes secretly; Charles cheats, Olivia dreams of someone other than her husband; Charles struts and moralizes and demands that his wife be more “ladylike,” while Olivia fulminates with unrealized potential. “I dedicated so much to this movement,” she finally bursts out to her husband, “I poured all of me into it — into you. My whole world is you. My life is you. I don’t even know who I am … I can’t help but ask myself … Was losing me in all of this worth it?”
Olivia’s terror at her lost sense of self is only multiplied by the fact that she’s carrying a child. “Our little miracle,” Charles calls it, but his wife’s eyes are sharp with panic. “This world ain’t no place for a colored child to call home,” she says to him. And with God she’s even more blunt. “Dear God,” she begins another letter, “I don’t want this baby. I never did … You’re taking this thing back.”
Meanwhile, her longtime husband Charles says nakedly expository things like, “I got you ice cream…strawberry….your favorite…like I use to when we’d go on our walks back in college.”
It’s like a marriage of nirvanics. One minute they’re passionately hurling themselves into each other’s arms; the next they have to remind each other that they are having intimacy issues.
Like a stereotypical Baptist ministry, "Fireflies" aims for an emotional forte early on and doesn’t often vary its pitch, and Love takes every opportunity to weave new horrors into the plot, from rapes and murders to grisly hints at self-induced abortion. We shudder at each new and awful twist, but as the hits keep coming, they become weirdly cloying. There's a mysterious package and a knife, and then very quickly, it devolves into a soap opera. It’s like a very rich meal, eventually dulling the very senses it seeks to sharpen and satisfy.
Olivia is bone-weary from being “a colored woman,” as she says…”makin’ somethin’ out of nothin’ everyday,” and no doubt Love means to convey the full weight of her struggle, but the action keeps tripping over the obstacles to happiness in Charles and Olivia’s shaky marriage. When Charles returns after delivering his eulogy, for instance, he can think of nothing but sex. And Olivia, randy as she may be, is nonetheless angry about his philandering.
And then there’s the fact that Olivia not only writes Charles’s speeches but, to his increasing discomfort, even directs their every intonation. The play does contain, however, a kind of maximalist power: Olivia's sermon about fireflies, for instance, which is inspired by a dream she has had about God beckoning his chosen people home.
But it’s the two actors, and especially the magnetic Ms. Clark’s Olivia, which keeps us invested, and who elevates “Fireflies” out of soap-opera territory. Her presence is so big that at one point — when Charles picks her up in a tender slow-dance, and she let herself lean into him, feet hovering above the floor — her vulnerability shines in the scene. In a sense, Fireflies is her coming-out story, her journey from the brutal trap of her own mind, and her own home, back out into the world: a place no less brutal, but whose assaults she will face by having rediscovered her own soul.
But Mr. Purry is no slouching wallflower in this play, as he skillfully finds the balance between Charles’s charisma and his weakness. Despite Charles’ many flaws — including the imbedded patriarchal presumptions of a man of his time — the Reverend Grace is playful and appealingly earthy. We can see what it is that drew Olivia to him, and that keeps her with him, despite everything. Theirs is a respectful love — perhaps not a love that should have led to marriage, but no less profound for that. And while Charles is, in his messy mix of innocence and guilt, deeply human, Ms. Clark’s smoldering, taut-as-a-bowstring Olivia is almost part animal at times, bright-eyed, skittish and cat-like in her intensity. It’s an electrically charged performance, the kind that you imagine an actor passing out after.
Despite her marriage and the baby she’s carrying, though, Olivia has “never been able to feel the way [she] did” when, for a brief time, she was around the addressee of her many steaming, secret letters, the mysterious, enigmatic Ruby. Her attraction is a muted one, mostly subsumed inside the story of a rife, straight relationship — which already has plenty of reasons for its many times corybantic episodes outside of Olivia’s longings.
Stories of the closet seem to always appeal to our sense of historical accuracy, and we’ve certainly seen plenty of narratives involving the gay husband in a straight marriage, but I’m not sure that that assumption of accuracy doesn’t sometimes limit our imaginations. The widowed Coretta Scott King, for instance, surprisingly took up the mantle as an early supporter in the struggle for gay and lesbian civil rights. Even in later life, 1983, she urged the amendment of the Civil Rights Act in Congress to include gays and lesbians as a protected class.
Though the Martin figure is called the Rev. Charles Emmanuel Grace, there is no mistaking his “face of the movement” stature for anyone else’s. As the play begins, Charles has been called upon, just as King was, to speak at the funeral of the black girls killed in the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing. And, just like the Reverend King, he meets his fate through subversive elements. The biggest difference is playwright Love’s daring machinations on the standard portrait of a great-man’s marriage by making the wife infinitely more interesting than the husband.
And, as embodied by the fine performers here, those lives really do seem alive. Ms. Clark unifies Olivia’s deeply divided character so that you track your empathy for her even when she slides from apparent giddiness to Medea-like rage. And Mr. Purry, exhilarating onstage, is both of those at once, layering one beneath the other to deepen our understanding of a fallible man of faith.
“Fireflies,” now playing at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa on the Julianne Argyros Stage through January 26th. Costume Designer - David Kay Mickelsen; Lighting Designer – Don Darnutzer; Stage Manager – Alyssa Escalante; Dramaturg – Macelle Mahala; Artistic Director – David Ivers; Managing Director – Paula Tomei; Founding Artist Directors – David Emmes & Martin Benson. Ticket information and seating available at https://www.scr.org/tickets/single-tickets
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report