As we sit uncomfortably with the tragic news from Pittsburgh last week, it’s hard not to let the terror of that mass murder flit about in our mind as the sounds of inspiring gospel music carry us down into the 1960’s South. The time and the place are unveiled, wrapped onto the back of those storm clouds that gather. The parallels burn red and fierce, and lighting cuts through the sky, signaling that a storm is coming to the Fireflies that dart about Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater where Donja R. Love’s new play is getting a five-star premiere. Directed with an emotional preciseness, Saheen Ali (Public’s Twelfth Night) teases out the layers with a delicate thoughtfulness as the winds swirl around the two spectacular leads wrestling the demons of revolution and frustration of in-equality, personally and politically, up out of the floorboards and onto their tired hopeless shoulders. The storm is here, right above, with driving winds destined to unearth all the secrets and lies that these two have kept hidden from each other, colliding over love and attachment, registering as far more deeply profound and dynamic than the initial impression could ever have imagined.
“Dear Ruby“, dictates Olivia, played with an emotional depth and intelligence by Dewanda Wise (Lab’s Sunset Baby), formulating a letter that is written in the skies, to a woman who has more impact on the upcoming events then we can image, without her even being aware. The lyrical poetry is spoken from the porch out to God and all the Fireflies floating above, hoping that the grace of her words will help silence the bombs exploding in her head. The darkness is bringing news of terrible happenings in the world, visually and emotionally heightened by the strong and intense projections by Alex Basco Koch (Signature’s Be More Chill). The storm will fracture the lives of these two freedom fighters, cutting them apart with the sharpness of lightning in the skies, courtesy of some fine work by lighting designer David Weiner (Broadway’s The Price) and sound design/original music by Justin Ellington (LCT’s Pipeline). It’s surprising and intensely satisfying at every quick turn of a phrase, watching with wonder as the temperature drops and the power shifts as quickly as the armor that protected their guarded selves falls to the side. Both are forcibly stripped down to their exposed guttural and passionate selves, praying for a salvation that might never come. The writing is intricate, layered, subtle, and detailed, as we watch the sky fill with “my colored kids flying home“, the extinguished souls recreated into Fireflies, with their hopes and dreams desperate to find a haven of safety and civility in heaven.
Pulling out an intensive slice of complicated history, a bomb has been detonated in a Baptist Church killing many of the African-American congregation. It’s an act of pure violence, hatred, racism, and terrorism, an act we are keenly activated by this same week in 2018. Olivia is searching for the right words to give to her solid husband, Charles, portrayed strongly and clearly by the powerful Kris Davis (Public/Broadway’s Sweat). He will need her assistance as he always has, far more than just as his housewife, cooking and cleaning the beautifully appointed kitchen of their lovely 1960’s home, thanks to the detailed work by scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado (MCC’s Charm) and perfect period costumes by Dede Ayite (ATC’s Tell Hector…). He needs her mind and her thoughtful soul, as she is one with the word play in her heart, crafting speeches for her man to deliver with power and passion to their people. The stage is set, and the sweeping in of the tit-for-tat confrontation between two passionate lost souls finally surfaces, whether they want it to or not.
Charles will be asked to speak on the murdered souls’ behalf, this task, Olivia is keenly aware of, and she knows it is up to her and her speech writing to stir the souls who are mourning the deaths of the innocents. She wants to give them power and a purpose, and mend the hopelessness and the brokenness that lives inside her mind and her voice. Charles is a strong preaching presence, cutting quite the impressive silhouette when he arrives home exhausted from his mission out in that unjust world of inequality and death. In those first few moments of re-engagement, the two seem solid and connected, but thunder can be heard emanating out from within their hearts, warning sounds that a fracture is on its way. And when it comes, all the secrets that they have kept buried under the floorboards or hidden inside packages delivered will reveal that these two have been existing in the eye of the storm, pretending all is good and loving. For the moment, it feels calm, but it’s only a momentary bit of sunlight before we feel the backend of the storm rolling in and wiping away all that false serenity.
This is the second of Love’s multi-part The Love* Plays trilogy (Sugar in Our Wounds, Fireflies, In The Middle) and even though I have never seen the first, this spectacularly deep piece of writing feels as connected to the heaviness of the world as one could hope for. Death is all around, but so are the hidden pieces of evidence that could crack their connection. Unhappiness fills the perfumed air and the tightness and strain that resides in Olivia’s throat and voice is scratching at her heart, daring to be seen and heard. He wants to keep his wife “lady-like” and properly in her place, but that doesn’t sit all that well on his wife and expecting mother. She’s filled to the rim with rebellion, struggling against an explosive demon within for expression beyond just her words emulating from his mouth. The fuse, once lit, on that internal firecracker that is Olivia’s mind, finds freedom of expression in that last and most powerful speech. It sparks blazingly hot into the air of the former church that is now the Atlantic Theatre, most appropriately. The holy window frames look down on us compassionately, as the real world News smashes our hearts with the grief and fear created from the Pittsburgh mass murder. Those victims fly up, joining with Olivia and Love’s’s Fireflies, reminding us all of the struggle we are up against, back then and now. All we can do is fight and resist, with our words and our actions, striving for equality, justice, and acceptance for all those marginalized by the powers that be, for the moment, but hopefully not for much longer. Now go VOTE for change and salvation.