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Theatre Review by David Hurst - October 15, 2018

Khris Davis and DeWanda Wise
Photo by Ahron R Foster

If you were lucky enough to see Donja R. Love's searing, civil-war drama Sugar in Our Wounds over the summer at Manhattan Theatre Club, you won't want to miss his Fireflies, which just opened on the Atlantic Theater Company's mainstage, the Linda Gross Theater. The second offering in The Love* Plays, a trilogy of plays that embrace Queer, Black narratives, Fireflies is a powerful exploration of a marriage filled with secrets set at the dawn of civil rights movement in September 1963. At only 90 intermission-less minutes, it packs a wallop in its oblique allusions to the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and boasts two superb performances by Khris Davis and DeWanda Wise in the leading roles.

The marriage in Fireflies is between Charles Emmanuel Grace (Davis), a charismatic preacher whose national profile is rising quickly in the civil rights movement, and his long-suffering wife, Olivia (Wise). As the play opens, Charles arrives home from a speaking engagement ready to renew his connubial relations with Olivia before heading out again to speak at the funerals of the four young colored girls killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. But it's quickly apparent things are not what they appear to be and that Charles and Olivia's relationship is incredibly strained. Olivia sneaks cigarettes when she's not ‘hearing' bombs going off in the sky, while Charles is sneaking liquor and worrying about Olivia mental stability. It's revealed that not only does Olivia write Charles' speeches she also coaches him on their most effective dramatic delivery. Oh, yes, and Olivia is pregnant and she doesn't want to be.

To divulge any other plot points would be churlish. Love's skillful script uncovers secrets the way a great chef peels an onion, and Saheem Ali (who also helmed Sugar in Our Wounds) directs with subtlety and understatement. They've cast the ideal collaborators in Khris Davis and DeWanda Wise who work beautifully together and never telegraph the emotional shifts that are coming until Love wants them revealed. Davis, who made an auspicious debut in Marco Ramirez's The Royale and was seen in Kate Whoriskey's Sweat, is able to make Charles' misogyny, emotional blackmail and philandering almost sympathetic. If not, he at least makes it understandable in light of the times in which Charles lives. Wise, currently seen as Nola Darling in Spike Lee's Netflix adaptation of She's Gotta Have It, stunningly embodies an intelligent black woman trapped in supporting role in a man's world. Olivia's world is coming unglued and the choices in front of her are all equally distasteful to her. Love's conclusion, which this writer won't spoil, allows Wise to rise up to her full dramatic potential in fiery, passionate fashion.

Love points out in a handout at the theatre that The Love* Plays can all stand alone in their storylines and characters, but that they're all connected with each other as well. If you saw Sugar in Our Wounds you'll remember the incredible, moss-laden tree lit up in green and purple lights (courtesy of set designer Arnulfo Maldonado, who also designed the less successful set for Fireflies) that dominated the stage. When Olivia mentions her great, grandfather, Henry, who was born a slave, the two plays come thrillingly together. It will be exciting to see Love's conclusion to the trilogy, In The Middle, which is set during the Black Lives Matter movement, when someone is smart enough to stage it.

Through November 11
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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