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Donja R. Love's intense and intimate play 'Fireflies' has its Virginia premiere in Charlottesville Friday

A play that unfolds over three days in the kitchen of a charismatic minister and Civil Rights leader and the speechwriter wife behind much of his success dives into issues of love, grief, identity and meaning.

Arianna Jones portrays Olivia Grace and Simeon Brown plays the Rev. Charles Emmanuel Grace in the Virginia premiere of “Fireflies,” which opens Friday at Charlottesville’s Live Arts. The second play in Donja R. Love’s “The Love Plays” trilogy examines queer love through the lens of Black history.

“There’s so much in that 60-something page script,” director Ti Ames told The Daily Progress. “It draws you in from page one, and you feel involved in these people’s lives.”

“Fireflies” begins in the autumn of 1963, right after the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, exposes some deep clefts in the Graces’ marriage. Love’s play acknowledges the different manifestations of grief in Black men and Black women.

“The first things that we talked about were the traditions of grief in the Black community,” Ames said of Jones and Brown. The characters they play “are textbook examples of how Black men and Black women grieve. And we know that hurt people hurt people.”

A bomb planted under the church steps on Sept. 15, 1963, killed four young people who’d gathered to take part in the adult service on Youth Day: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair and Carole Robertson, all 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 9. Sarah Collins, Addie Mae Collins’ sister, survived the blast, but lost her right eye. The tragedy sent shock waves through not only the Black community, but the entire nation in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.

“Intimacy is emotional, and is mental as well,” Ames said. “From day one, I had my actors checking in with each other.”

The violent deaths of the young people in the Birmingham blast affects the Graces in different ways. For the reverend, “his one wish is to be a father, and he’s very concerned about leaving a legacy in the wake of the bombing,” Ames said. His response to the killings is to resolve “to raise independent, smart Black children” in hopes of creating a better, kinder world.

For his wife, it’s a bit more complicated. Olivia worries about “not only the children who have died, but the children who are not born yet,” Ames said, and she’s not sure she wants “to give birth to something that could be taken away from you because of all the hatred in the world.”

Fear intensifies both spouses’ emotions, and Olivia chafes under her husband’s expectations. Olivia is “a closeted queer person in a homophobic Black community” in early-1960s America, and “this makes her life a thousand times harder,” Ames said. “She has a lot of reasons to be grieving.”

“They keep arguing about this word ‘ladylike,’” Ames said, noting that qualities upheld as “ladylike” in that era often equaled “straight.” Olivia’s response: “Why can’t I just be Olivia?”

Queer Black people at that time in history “did not know that they were alive, that they were surviving, that they deserved to be in the world,” the director said. Ames added that getting caught up in “Fireflies” can prompt deeper examination of how well people know each other, and themselves.

The intensity of the couple’s lives and unrelenting schedules heats up after the bombing stirs so many complex emotions, which means that “they have no respite in this show,” Ames said. “Not only is there no physical respite from this grief, but there’s no respite from the emotional grief.”

Love’s exploration of the different forms love can take and the heartbreaks it can bring along with the joys invites audience members to examine the role of empathy in their own lives and responses to the world.

“I think being able to see other human beings go through this is very important,” the director said. “We are being given the gift of access, of complexity. This play could easily be about your aunt and uncle. It could easily be about your coworkers and their spouses.”

Children are dying daily in violence in Gaza and other places in the world in 2024, which means the deeper questions that consumed a couple under stress in the 1960s remain compelling today.

“What matters is that children are dying,” Ames said. “It does speak to what we are going through right now.”

Ames is proud to be part of the Virginia premiere of “Fireflies,” adding that “unexpected moments of joy” will help to shape a fuller emotional experience for audience members.

“This show is so sensitive, and so powerfully written. It’s an honor to be able to take it on,” Ames said. “Telling hard stories is not an easy feat, but we’re doing it.”

Ames’s creative team includes Khadijah Williams as production stage manager, Kieryn Burton as assistant stage manager, Bee Smith as scenic designer, Ant Ma as scenic design mentor, AV Legère as props designer/set dressing, Laurence Hugo as lighting designer, John Holdren as sound designer, Kasey Brown as costume designer, Daniel Kunkel as fight choreographer and Laura Rikard as intimacy consultant.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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