Theater Review: FIREFLIES (Northlight in Skokie)

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by Stephen Best on January 29, 2022

in Theater-Chicago


The old adage, behind every great man is an even greater woman, has never been truer than in the new play, Fireflies, now being staged at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. A thinly veiled, fly on the wall look at a day in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King, this domestic melodrama unfolded among the racial tensions of 1963. Collapsing under the weight of an over-packed script, this 90-minute, one act rapidly bounced between domestic drama, sanctimonious sermons, sexual abuse, abortion, rage, mental illness, and lies & deception –all volleyed back and forth like a Wimbledon tennis ball. Written by Donja R. Love, Fireflies is the second in a series of three The Love Plays focusing on “queer love through black history.” Perhaps not seeing part one and part three left this in a void that started strong but fell apart by the end, weighed down by its own hubris.

Fireflies focused on a black couple living in the Jim Crow South. Rev. Charles Grace (Al’Jaleel McGhee) was committed to social activism, an in-demand face of the movement, not unlike King himself. If Charles Grace was the face of the movement, his wife Olivia Grace (Chanell Bell) was both the brains and the heart behind the scenes. A talented and prolific speech writer, she crafted all of the powerful words her husband was credited with sharing. When four young girls were killed by a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, both sprang into action. Writer Love is known for working pivotal moments in African American history into his work, and this real-world bombing fit seamlessly in the narrative. Both McGhee and Grace made the most of the material they were given; tender at first, the tale quickly turned darker and meaner by the minute.

Director Mikael Burke’s pacing turned from delicate to traumatic on a dime. After receiving an anonymous box in the mail, Olivia Grace soon determined her husband was unfaithful to her while he was out on the road. These FBI surveillance recordings echoed similar treatment to King. In the sixties, a sex tape destroyed a marriage or a career in an instant. By today’s standards, the same type of sex tape helped launch the careers of Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, but that is another story for another day.

While arguing in the kitchen (set by Scott Penner) this play morphed from domestic drama to a rage fest with more than a few unnecessary add-ons. Knocking his wife off of her high horse, this heavy drinking Pastor emerged with a stack of love letters written by his wife to a mysterious “Ruby” character. The homophobia of the day took over the narrative, but sorely lacked any real details of substance. Is it an affair if your wife is just writing letters to a same-sex crush she only met once? It wasn’t clear if anything actually happened between these women beyond a harmless infatuation, but the letters meant the world to Olivia. Next, toss in an unwanted pregnancy storyline, where a clearly distraught wife pondered if her baby is “that unpleasant present under the Christmas tree that you never play with, that you wish you could pass on to someone else.” Mother of the year she is not. For someone who said fireflies were “God’s children flying home to heaven” fifteen minutes earlier, she had compassion for every child except the one she was carrying.

Also in the mix, a never fully fleshed out mental-illness subplot. Olivia Grace would have these episodes where the onstage action would stop, Eric Watkins’ stage lighting would flash and she would “hear bombs exploding” and would have “visions of fire” surrounding her. Were these just flashes of her imagination, the beginnings of mental-illness, an undiagnosed brain tumor or just a convenient plot device. It was unclear in this staging, but the fault here lies in a muddled script, devoid of that distinct clarification. What was clear is this is a couple that despite surface success, never should have been married. Their contempt for one another obvious to everyone but themselves. By the time Olivia grabbed a kitchen butcher knife to threaten her husband, who in return grabbed a chair to defend himself, this story had descended into a Lifetime TV melodrama film I would call, “Woman in Jeopardy”. Then to sprinkle in a sexual assault and an additional murder to the plot was just too much. There is only so much trauma a character can face before it plays like the theater of the absurd. These awkward transitions lost any substantive powerful punch by the play’s end.

Fireflies had real potential. Timed to run at the beginning of Black History Month was no small coincidence. A cast of two, strong and talented black actors, written by an Afro-Queer writer, I was so excited to follow this show’s journey. A story full of angry secrets, infidelity, and mental illness juxtaposed against the concept of an affair of the body vs. an affair of the heart. It just fell short of expectations under its own need to pile on far too much to tell the tale of two people who never should have been together in the first place. The constant one-upmanship surpassed any real connection to the drama. Lusty and playful at the beginning, dour by the end, Fireflies flailed to take flight.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Northlight Theatre
9501 Skokie Boulevard in Skokie (Chicagoland)
ends on February 20, 2022
for tickets ($30 to $89), call 847 673 6300 or visit Northlight

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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