Fully Human: Passion, Faith and Doubt in "Fireflies"

Macelle Mahala
 | Dec 24, 2019
Fireflies text with photo of black woman
Lou Bellamy
​Director Lou Bellamy
Christiana Clark and Lester Purry
​​Actors Christiana Clark and Lester Purry. Meet them in this SCR blog article.

Fireflies presents an intimate moment between an iconic Civil Rights leader and his wife, speechwriter and partner in activism as they confront the brutal violence directed towards African American men, women and children during this time period.

Although the characters of Reverend Charles Emmanuel Grace and his wife, Olivia Mattie Grace, are fictional, the play references real events such as the bombing of the 16th ​Street Baptist ​Church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four little girls—Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. Suffering from what we would now call PTSD, Olivia hears bombs exploding in her mind and imagines the souls of the children killed by racial violence as fireflies flying home to God.

Part of a trilogy on the subject of queer love in black history, Fireflies imagines what the private lives of the dignified leaders of the Civil Rights Movement might have been like and how they coped with the stress of the constant violence they encountered in their quest for freedom. In an interview in connection with South Coast Repertory’s production of Fireflies, playwright Donja R. Love emphasized the leadership role that black women have always played in the struggle for freedom. (Read the full interview here.) The lack of recognition for the efforts of black women during the Civil Rights Movement led the playwright to create the character of Olivia, a woman who deals not only with the brutality of white supremacy, but also with repressive social expectations regarding her gender identity and sexuality.

Love is a recipient of the 2018 Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award, the 2017 Princess Grace Playwriting Fellowship and a 2016 Van Lier New Voices Playwriting ​Fellowship from the Lark. Described by The New York Times columnist Laura Collins-Hughes as “defiantly life embracing,” Love is one of the brightest and fiercest playwrights to recently debut work on the American stage.

Leading SCR’s production of this play is Lou Bellamy, Obie ​Award-winning director and founder of Penumbra Theatre Company. Long recognized for his meticulous and naturalistic direction of African American drama, Bellamy ​directs a powerhouse cast featuring Christiana Clark (recently seen on stage at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Goodman Theatre) and Lester Purry (veteran stage and film actor who has performed at Baltimore’s Center Stage, Penumbra Theatre Company, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and many others) on an emotional tour de force that links the personal with the political. A former professor and mentor to SCR’s Artistic Director David Ivers, Bellamy presents a nuanced exploration of the humanity of Civil Rights leaders who are often portrayed as super-human in the celebratory but sometimes anesthetic historical accounts presented during Black History Month. The characters in Fireflies are fully human; we see them experience passionate love, crises of faith, problems in their marriage and doubts as to whether their sacrifices will make a difference. Seen in this light, their achievements become that much more admirable and inspirational.

Donja R. Love
​Playwright Donja R. Love

I find myself just getting incredibly livid at this idea that a woman has to be behind a man. When I think about black history, when I think about all of the times that the needle was moved in a progressive direction, I find myself always thinking that it was because of a black woman. I think about during the time of enslavement, Harriet Tubman, all of the work that she was able to do. I think about the Civil Rights Movement and I think about Rosa Parks and all of the work that she was able to do, and her being one of the catalysts for the Civil Rights Movement to exist. In the here and the now, thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement and thinking about it being created by three black women … So, I found myself thinking, what was it like back in the ‘60s? What was it like to be this black woman, who is quite literally writing the words that are healing a nation? You are writing the words but your husband is the face of the movement and the one that is getting all the credit. To know, just because of who you are, because you are a woman, that you don't have that sort of power, you don't have that sort of agency. I found myself really interested in exploring that. What does that look like? What are the ways in which Olivia can be able to grow into the fullness of herself, to be able to become self-actualized? Not just through her writing these sermons and speeches for her husband. When we get to the end of the play, we are quite literally able to see her step into and own her voice.

—Donja R. Love, in an interview with Fireflies dramaturg, Macelle Mahala
(​Read the complete interview here.)

Learn more about Fireflies and buy tickets.