Playwright-director matchmaking is a typical practice of theatre. Blind coffee dates and email introductions that sometimes, if the connection is there, lead to a future collaboration. What’s rarer, as in the case of Donja R. Love and Saheem Ali, is when these moments spark the beginning of something more profound and far-reaching.
In 2016, playwright Donja R. Love was a writing fellow at the Playwrights Realm in New York when he was introduced to director Saheem Ali via Skype. Ali, who was in Detroit working on a show, had been given a copy of Love’s script Sugar in Our Wounds by The Realm’s literary manager, a Civil War-set play about a young slave who dreams of freedom and falls in love. “I was struck by the poetry of the language, by the theatricality of the surrealism, and by this notion of queer men existing during slavery—something that I hadn’t even fathomed,” recalls Ali.
Without meeting in person, or ever seeing any of Ali’s work, Love invited the director to work with him on a workshop of Sugar as part of his fellowship in New York. “I felt something—in that first conversation—that you don’t always feel when matchmaking happens,” says the playwright. “It felt like a no-brainer to me.”
Fast forward two years, and the pair officially collaborated on the world premiere of Sugar at Manhattan Theatre Club this past spring, and are now in the midst of their second Off-Broadway production: Love’s play Fireflies, now in performances at Atlantic Theater Company.
In Fireflies, Olivia, played by DeWanda Wise, and Charles (Khris Davis), are navigating what it means to be young, Black, and in love in the Jim Crow South. Olivia is a fierce speech writer and the force behind her charismatic husband and his movement to galvanize the people. But years of civil unrest and violence knock at their door. The sky is on fire. And Olivia is pregnant, with a secret.
Both Fireflies and Sugar are part of the playwright’s Love* Plays trilogy, a triptych of works that explore queer love during pivotal moments in Black History. The third play, In the Middle, received a workshop production at The Lark earlier this spring, also directed by Ali. What connects both playwright and director on this epic trio of plays isn’t just a shared love of these stories, but specifically, the intention behind them and what it means to bring them stages like Manhattan Theatre Club and the Atlantic.
“I write about marginalized people that exist within already marginalized spaces,” explains Love. “What does it mean to be queer in the Black community? Or HIV positive in the queer community? How do you navigate the world and how do you hold space for yourself in spaces that try to take up space for you?"
Love’s exploration of how queer people of color navigate pivotal moments in history—and still fight to be themselves—is, he hopes, an invitation to his audience. To see themselves reflected in these stories, and to gain a sense of, as he did in writing them, a profound lineage and community. Every audience member who shares their story with the playwright after seeing the show reminds him of the importance of representation.
“The work that I do is open for all but I know specifically who I’m writing about and who I’m writing for,” continues Love. “It’s my hope that even in these spaces—theatres where the subscriber base and the patrons are overwhelmingly white—that [queer people of color] have access and also feel welcomed."
“You can’t separate the political from the artistic,” says Ali, who sees each production as an opportunity to be very deliberate in his hiring choices as well. “Yes, [Love] has written a piece of art, but there’s also a really strong political bench and that carries forth to the process of creation as well… It’s not only about the audience, but about who is getting to fulfill their creative selves in the telling of the story. It has to begin from there.”
While a play like Fireflies can’t, in many ways, be separated from the political in 2018, the playwright clarifies that it’s not his primary intention. “I think inherently, all art is political to a certain degree. Yet, I’m not writing a piece saying ‘I’m political right now…’” says Love. “What I’m focused on, are the people. Telling their stories. What I’m doing as a writer is just writing people who are existing and that’s all there is to it for me.” The ultimate hope, he says, is that each of these plays will help his audience carry themselves into a “an unapologetic love for themselves.” It is called the Love trilogy after all.
Fireflies is running at Atlantic Theater Company through November 11. Visit Atlantictheater.org for more information.