Civil rights play ‘Fireflies’ expresses the burden of keeping hope alive in 1963

While not always successful in merging its many themes, Northlight’s two-person drama builds compelling tension between the strained spouses.

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The stirring words that Charles (Al’Jaleel McGhee) speaks to fuel the civil rights movement are the work of his wife, Olivia (Chanell Bell), in “Fireflies.”

Michael Brosilow

What do we call the time period we are in? Pre-post-pandemic, perhaps? For theaters at least, this is a time period of great strain mixed with great promise.

The pandemic-related pressures force smaller productions, not just the financial deficits from closures and low audience numbers, but also because the larger the cast, the likelier a COVID diagnosis interrupts the rehearsals or run.



When: Through Feb. 20

Where: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie

Tickets: $30-$89


Running time: 1 hour and 35 minutes with no intermission

Additionally, theater programming may well be experiencing peak influence of George Floyd’s murder, bringing forth a focus on remedying racial injustice and lack of representation on stages. From Broadway to every regional theater in the country, we are discovering the quite extraordinary range of young Black playwrights at work today.

I wouldn’t say it’s a golden age of Black playwriting yet, but it certainly feels like the pre-cursor to one. When it comes to the development of playwriting craft, there simply is no substitute to seeing your plays produced, not just once but multiple times. Second and third productions of plays provide writers with a greater view of the adaptability of the form, combined with a deeper understanding of their own artistic voice.

“Fireflies” at Northlight seems the perfect example of this moment. First produced in New York in the far distant past of 2018, it’s a two-person drama layered with personal-political plotlines involving violence against Black children, gender roles, homosexuality, abortion, mental health, alcoholism, domestic abuse, and I may be missing one or two more.

If it sounds fraught with a bit too much going on for two characters, it is, but using an artful mix of naturalism and expressionism, playwright Donja R. Love weaves these themes into a compelling 95 minutes that at moments beautifully expresses the psychological weight on those who seek to sustain people’s optimism and hope amid relentless violence and grief.

Set in September 1963, in the immediate aftermath of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four African-American girls, “Fireflies” introduces a complex marital relationship between an inspirational African-American preacher Charles (Al’Jaleel McGhee) and his wife, Olivia (Chanell Bell).

Charles may be the emerging voice of the civil rights movement, but it’s Olivia who writes all his speeches, coaches him on their delivery and determines where and when he goes to give them.

This dynamic alone provides plenty of tension. Olivia feels a gnawing loss of self in writing deeply felt words for someone else to speak, and Charles’ anger tends to emerge when Olivia plays on his insecurity about needing someone else’s words to perform.

This mutual need keeps them together and pulls them apart, making these sequences more interesting than when Love turns us toward marital infidelity. The fidelity issues take some twists and turns — the play is part of a trilogy Love has written about queer love at key moments of Black history — but aspects of this through-line feel predictable, while others feel too abstract.

The most forced plot point involves letters that become a key point of negotiation between Charles and Olivia, with Love ratcheting the potency of their emotional meaning up and down from one scene to the next.

Under Mikael Burke’s direction, both Bell and McGhee deliver excellent performances. McGhee captures Charles’ charisma as well as his demons.

But from start to finish, this is really Olivia’s play, and it’s her mind that Love pulls us into.

Bell deftly displays the heavy toll of both emotional suppression and expression. Those passionate, poetic, optimistic speeches Olivia writes are becoming harder. She struggles with visions of bombings and skies on fire, emphasized by the design team here, with Christie Chiles Twillie’s sound design deserving special mention.

Bell makes it clear these visions, which come upon her suddenly and unpredictably, reflect both understandable trauma and unbearable premonitions. After all, she’s the one who answers the phone, and each time it rings, we anticipate there may be another mourning mother on the phone, to whom Olivia must become the confidant and comforter.

We also learn early on that Olivia is pregnant, and for a variety of reasons, including her sense of doom, does not wish to be.

There’s so much that works in “Fireflies.” It is almost a great play, and it certainly makes me eager to learn more about Love’s other work (his play “Sugar in the Wound” was produced by First Floor Theatre in 2019) and to see what he does in the future.

But the variety of plot points aren’t always convincing, and story, metaphor and style never quite cohere for the needed payoff. Just like Olivia, Love seems pulled forcefully toward both hope and tragedy, an unresolved quality in “Fireflies” that captures a sophistication and depth, but also evinces a muddled emotional response.

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