In Donja R. Love’s “Fireflies” at South Coast Repertory, Christiana Clark and Lester Purry breathe fire into the private life of a couple who are a lot like Coretta Scott King and her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Their names here are Olivia and the Rev. Charles Grace, so we understand that despite historical parallels, we’re watching a fantasy, not a documentary. But historical parallels abound. It’s 1963. Four young black girls have been killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. Charles, the public face of “the movement,” has gone to deliver a sermon to the survivors.
Olivia, waiting for him at home, is in obvious distress — though whether her pain is internal or external is not immediately clear. The sky above her spotless kitchen (set by Vicki Smith) is blood red and exploding with bombs (projections by Jeffrey Elias Teeter). Instead of fleeing for her life, Olivia sits quietly at the table, smoking cigarettes and writing letters — to someone named Ruby, and to God.
When Olivia hears Charles coming, she hides the cigarettes and the letters and gets dinner ready. But Charles is feeling too amorous to bother with turkey wings and beans. Olivia tries to put him off, playfully: “Go on and wash your hands, Charles Emmanuel Grace!”
“I got you screaming my whole name, and I ain’t even do nothing yet,” retorts Charles with a cocky leer. And his seduction soon proves irresistible — to Olivia as well as the audience.
Their lusty, sweet rapport — a highlight of the production, choreographed with pitch-perfect verve by director Lou Bellamy — offers the hope that Olivia’s marriage serves as a sanctuary for her as well as for her husband.
Elsewhere things don’t look very promising. Olivia’s apocalyptic visions include one in which the souls of murdered black children fill the sky like fireflies. As a woman of that period, Olivia is limited in what she can do to change the world. She is as spiritual as Charles, and as passionate about their cause, but she isn’t encouraged to preach. She’s obliged to work behind the scenes, writing Charles’ sermons and coaching him on his delivery.
But at least, we reassure ourselves, maybe she has an honest, mutually respectful marriage in which she’s treated like an equal.
No such luck. The illusion falls away the next morning, with Charles’ breakfast-table lecture on the meaning of “ladylike.” Then secrets start spilling out, almost faster than we can process them — Charles’ infidelities, Olivia’s yearning for the mysterious Ruby.
Playwright Love is providing voices to those overlooked or erased by history — women, people of color, minorities of other sorts. (“Fireflies” is the centerpiece of a trilogy exploring queer love at pivotal moments in African American history.)
The project is an ambitious one: The past offers countless wrongs to redress and blanks to fill in. In “Fireflies,” Love may be tackling too many of them at once. It’s not that every issue he includes isn’t important, but that the brain has a natural saturation point. Having provided us a beautifully unique and sympathetic heroine in Olivia, “Fireflies” goes on to afflict her with so many tragedies that it risks turning her into a generic victim and leaving the audience numb.
When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; through Jan. 26
Information: (714) 708-5555, scr.org
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes