A Black man in a golf shirt stands behind a table, leaning in toward a Black woman in slacks and an orange blouse with a beige jacket who stands in front of the table.
Al’Jaleel McGhee and Chanell Bell in Fireflies at Northlight Theatre Credit: Michael Brosilow

Donja R. Love’s Fireflies (the second in his trilogy, The Love* Plays, each focusing on a different era of Black American history) is at once brutal and hopeful, the hate and violence-soaked former threatening throughout to extinguish the hard-won gleam of the latter but never quite succeeding.

It’s 1963 when we meet Olivia (Chanell Bell) and Charles (Al’Jaleel McGhee). He’s “the face of the (civil rights) movement,” a preacher with the charisma of a modern-day Moses and a similarly patriarchal mindset. But it’s Olivia’s words that fuel his galvanizing sermons. She writes his speeches even as she struggles with something akin to PTSD. Olivia sees skies seared by fire and swarms of fireflies, hears bombs drop, and speaks of being suffocated by choking smoke. 

Through 2/20: Wed 1 and 7:30 PM, Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2:30 and 8 PM, Sun 2:30 PM; also Tue 2/8, 7:30 PM and Sun 2/20, 7 PM; Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, 847-673-6300, northlight.org, $30-$89 ($15 students, subject to availability).

On an interpersonal level, the couple has challenges that many long-term couples face sooner or later. But as director Mikael Burke’s staging for Northlight shows so clearly, Charles and Olivia are also bearing the weight of systemic racism buffeting them from the outside. Fireflies unfolds in the days after the Klan bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, murdering Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins. Charles has been asked to deliver a eulogy; the toll of the task shows in Bell and McGhee’s intensely rendered performances. McGhee gives Charles the ferocity of a warrior. And when Bell’s Olivia finally gives voice to her own words, her power shines with a light that not even bombs can break. 

Yet Love also makes space for joy, respect, romance, and the foundational premise that the civil rights movement—long, bloody, exhausting, crushing, and often seemingly endless—remains a steadfast march, inching toward righteousness.