Sunday, January 19, 2020

South Coast’s “Fireflies” Reigns In Beginnings Of Civil Rights Movement

The ‘Fireflies’ in Donja R. Love's tale of things that go boom in the air refers to the souls of the four little girls killed in the Birmingham Alabama Church bombing in 1963 at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

In a winning and emotional memoir, Love starts at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement and in the Playbill describes: “Freedom is Never Really Won”.

In the 1950’s to those of color, homosexual, bi or transgender, queer or active in the Civil Rights movement lived under a threat that hung over them like the plague. Some might have memories if sit ins at drug store counters, Rosa Parks, Emmet Till, Martin Luther King, the school standoff  blocking Blacks from attending an all white school, the murder of three white Northern boys who dared march with Martin Luther King, white supremacy and violence, cross burnings or George Wallace.

Christina Clark as Olivia
None of it was pretty. But in my collective memory, I was not aware, as Love points out that two out of three women ‘who founded The Black Lives Matter movement were queer or that black women have been at the forefront of every major social movement in America’.

Had I known that, I might not have been taken aback when Olivia (Christina Clark) was writing letters to God and her 'friend' Ruby: Dear Ruby, It’s been a while. The sky…it’s been burning so bright since you left. It reminds my of you.”

Charles (Lester Purry) and Christina have known each other since childhood picking tobacco together when their families were sharecroppers. According to Charles, now a preacher, he knew he would marry her some day. According to her, not so much. Of course they married and their onstage chemistry is credible and worthy of the two even as they portray a marriage on rocky ground.  

The play opens, after bursts of fire fill the sky and booms shatter the quiet.  We find ourselves in their kitchen after Charles has arrived home from eulogizing the four children killed after a bomb exploded at the 16th Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. The headlines read: "Hate -Triggered Church Blast Kills 4 Little Girsl". 
Christina Clark and Lester Purry
We learn that the two of them are involved in the Civil Rights movement. Violence begets violence as each day passes. She feels the weight of  depression home alone most of the time. She writes all his speeches and he gets all the covet; she doesn’t trust him while he’s on the road doing his pastoral duties. The sky is a red glow that deeply disturbs her, and the booms has her crying out to God, "When will it stop?”

Both are worn out and weary from the toll, the destruction, physically and mentally, has taken on them. He drinks too much. He’s horny and she plays hard to get but they do head off to the bedroom for some long overdue lovemaking, according to him.

When they do emerge from the bedroom all secrets are exposed; she gets a tape recording of his lovemaking on his last trip. She’s having his baby but doesn’t want and he has her dirty little secrets all tied up in ribbons threatening to expose her if she aborts the baby. That’s a bombshell, but there is more to follow in this one act 90- minute play that director Lou Bellamy brings to the fore with heartfelt emotional verve.
Christina Clark and Lester Purry
Excellently acted by the two experienced actors of color. They no doubt felt the impact of what their history of slavery and inequality looked like before the volunteers ventured out on the streets. They were there to protest ! But what it has devolved into in this present day atmosphere where Black’s are the targets of police brutality and the toll it has taken on so many is almost an insult to those who risked their lives for the cause. At the time one might never have imagined it would still be the fight for equal rights. 

We see the daily horrors on the news today. Those hateful acts almost mirror the brutality of days before the Civil Rights movement. The family drama that’s acted out in Love’s play builds to a powerful and unexpected finally. Both actors give the audience a true sense of how close we all are to crumbling under that pressure. 

Jeffery Elias Teeter’s projections become a third character in this production. The sky is either filled with smoke from blasts of bombs going off either in Olivia’s head or off in ta somewhere distant location and in the end the fireflies overwhelm with their abundance. It’s simply breathtaking.

Vicki Smith’s set is a realistic and working kitchen where meals are prepared, but go uneaten. Lighting designer Don Darnutzer enhances Teeter’s projections as Scott W. Edwards sound design rocks the theatre. David Kay Mickelsen designed the period clothes.
Lester Purry and Christina Clark
The world premiere of “Fireflies” was presented by The Atlantic Theatre Company in 2018.Hats off to South Coast Rep. for bringing it to Orange County. It needs to be seen.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Jan. 26th
Organization: South Coast Repertory Theatre
Phone: 714-708-5555
Production Type: Drama
Where: 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, at Bristol Street/Avenue of the Arts.
Ticket Prices: Start at $24.00
Venue: Julianne Argyros Stage
Photo Credit: Jordan Kubat

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