Theater Review: FIREFLIES (Northlight in Skokie)

Post image for Theater Review: FIREFLIES (Northlight in Skokie)

by Dan Zeff on January 29, 2022

in Theater-Chicago


Fireflies at the Northlight Theater takes audiences back to the fraught year of 1963 in the Deep South, where racial tensions burn hot, as black people attempt to assert their Civil Rights in the face of violent, often deadly white resistance.

Playwright Donja R. Love has concentrated his single-act drama on two characters, Charles Grace and his wife, Olivia, who bear a strong real life resemblance to the Reverend Martin Luther King and his wife, Coretta. Charles is the charismatic face of the Civil Rights battle while Olivia operates in the background as the author of the speeches that have made her husband such a majestic figure in the movement.

After an initial 20 minutes of domestic banter, Fireflies explodes into a searing drama about a marriage threatening to break up, with changes of betrayal and infidelity scorching the dialogue. The change in tone from domestic tranquility to marital warfare is thrust upon the audience with sudden intensity, as plot twists erupt into a firestorm of back and forth acrimony.

The power of Fireflies resides in the ferocity of the exchanges between Charles and Olivia over Olivia’s unwanted pregnancy, Charles’s apparent drinking and womanizing, Olivia’s mental health condition, and a mysterious off-stage figure named Ruby. At first, we see McGhee’s Charles as a dedicated fighter for racial equality but with time to dally with the ladies and toss down a cocktail or two. He has built his career on Olivia’s soaring speeches without giving any public credit to his wife as the major force behind his success. But fissures in the marriage are soon exposed. A tsunami of charges and counter charges sizzles between the husband, drenching the atmosphere with accusations and bitterness. At its most effective, Fireflies succeeds more as a marital drama than a historical return to the turbulent 1960s. At times I thought I was in the overheated world of George and Martha in Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Which brings us to Al’Jaleel McGhee as Charles and Channell Bell as Olivia, providing a pair of wrenching characterizations that nail the viewers to their seats. Playwright Love demonstrates his mastery at shaping the intense verbal battles that dominate the play, even though on leaving the theater the spectator may have questions about whether the separate narrative pieces fit together to provide a coherent story. But during the fierce exchanges between Charles and Olivia, the audience is totally in the play’s emotional grip.

Director Mikael Burke has properly given his two stars full reign to overwhelm the audience with the abundance of Love’s intense and eloquent dialogue. The show may run only 80 uninterrupted minutes, but the demands of the two roles must be exhausting with the high-energy actors leaving nothing on the table emotionally. The play does end on a calmer note with an upbeat monologue by Olivia, which seemed a little hopeful and optimistic considering the story’s previous events. Other viewers may disagree, applauding the lady’s fervent resilience and her belief that history is on her side.

The play’s action is confined mostly to a kitchenette setting designed by Scott Penner, Gregory Graham the costumes, Eric Watkins the lighting plan, Christie Chiles Twillie the sound, and Bren Coombs the props. Their physical and aural work complements the intimacy of the drama nicely.

Fireflies premiered in 2018, as the second part of Love’s trilogy that explores Blackness and Queerness during key moments in Black American history. The play at the Northlight certainly whets our interest in what the remainder of the trilogy. Whatever its narrative hiccups, Fireflies shows the hand of a writer who knows how to command the stage with his language, vivid characters, and commitment to vital issues. We can await the remainder of Love’s trilogy with much anticipation.

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

Comments on this entry are closed.