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‘Fireflies’ looks at the ugliness behind the shiny appliances and wash-and-sets in a Southern black home

DeWanda Wise, of Netflix’s ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ is brilliant in new play

Olivia Grace is a preacher’s wife in desperate need of a room of her own.

But in the South of 1963, no one will let her have it, and that is the tragedy that propels Donja R. Love’s multilayered new play Fireflies, now being staged at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York.

Fireflies is a story of marital dissatisfaction stuffed down deep and hidden away from nosy eyes for the sake of respectability and The Race. DeWanda Wise, best known as Nola Darling in the Netflix series adaptation of She’s Gotta Have It, paces and smokes and screams and sobs as she contemplates the stifling life she’s built with her husband, Charles (Khris Davis).

Fireflies begins with a scrim obscuring its set. It’s gray, and the bars going across it resemble those of a prison. And then it drops to the floor with a dramatic flourish to reveal a well-appointed mid-century kitchen and Olivia, the caged bird who makes a home in it. It’s the day of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and Olivia is preparing dinner for Charles, who will preach at the girls’ funeral in a few days. She’s also writing his sermon, because she’s been writing all of his sermons since before they married, like some ecclesiastical Cyrano de Bergerac. Of course she never gets credit, and the weight of Olivia’s obscured skills and deferred dreams, crushed as black people’s freedoms are crushed in the world outside, have turned her into a madwoman. She hallucinates that the sky is on fire, she hears bombs going off in her head and she’s completely retreated from public life.

“I am tired of writing eulogies for flowers that wilted too soon,” she laments.

Khris Davis (left) and DeWanda Wise in Fireflies.

Ahron R. Foster

Fireflies is Love’s second play in a trilogy that examines black life during enslavement, the civil rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement. The Love Plays, as he calls them, are interconnected. Olivia’s great-grandfather is one of the main characters in the first play, Sugar in Our Wounds, which imagined what a relationship would have looked like between two queer enslaved men.

In Olivia, Love imagines the internal conflicts of women like Coretta Scott King — well-educated women who played second fiddle to their husbands. He sketches their frustrations, their rage, their loneliness, and it all comes pouring out when Olivia receives a package of recordings of Charles having sex with another woman.

“I dedicated so much to this movement. I poured all of me into it — into you,” she tells him when she confronts him. “My whole world is you. My life is you. I don’t even know who I am. I don’t even speak for myself anymore. My words come out of your mouth. I can’t help but ask myself, was it worth it? Was losing me in all of this, in you, worth it?”

What’s worse is that Olivia is saddled with an unwanted pregnancy and an attraction to women in a society that has room for neither. When Charles becomes aware of both facts, he doesn’t take it well. As Charles, Davis effortlessly embodies the easy charm and charisma of a magnetic black preacher, and then expertly shifts to menacing and defensive. The two play off each other brilliantly, allowing us to see how a meaningful friendship still hides in the cracks of their frayed relationship. The difference in the size of the two actors is a can’t-miss illustration of the power imbalance between them.

But the more self-actualized Olivia becomes, the more space she takes up, in her life, on the stage, even in the pulpit, where she finally gives life to her own words in public. In She’s Gotta Have It and How To Tell You’re a Douchebag, Wise takes effortless command of the stories she’s steering. It’s in her walk, in her gaze, in her speech patterns. But she smartly sheds that sensuous confidence to play Olivia as young, tiny and unsure of herself, even though she and Charles are the same age. Her confidence comes in flashes, like the fireflies she imagines black souls become when they’re stolen away too soon.

DeWanda Wise (left) and Khris Davis in Fireflies.

Ahron R. Foster

Mid-20th-century domestic ennui that gives way to an enraged feminism is a well-worn topic across theater, film and television. Olivia’s misery isn’t so different from that of Betty Draper’s in Mad Men or April Wheeler’s in Revolutionary Road. Unpacking the ugliness belied by shiny appliances and wash-and-sets is practically its own genre, but it’s one that’s been chiefly concerned with the desperate housewifery of white women. Stories about Southern black women from the same time period tend to highlight the fact that they are performing domestic work for two households. They raise their own children and someone else’s. They cook and clean for wages during the day, then come home to do the same for free.

But Olivia is the rare black woman with enough class privilege to skirt that fate, and so Love’s play ends up concerning itself with themes more often associated with Wendy Wasserstein or Eve Ensler. Fireflies is a welcome addition in considering the lives of American black women, even as it explores a minority within a minority. It takes the enduring perspective of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and projects its central thematic conflicts onto the life of a Southern black woman living in relative comfort.

Freedom comes, but at heavy expense.

Liner Notes

Fireflies runs through Nov. 11 at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater in New York.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.