Angelique Powell and Michael Lake have experienced enough in life to know that even their heroes are not perfect.
They also reminded themselves throughout the rehearsal process that the two characters they portray in Donja R. Love’s 2018 play, “Fireflies,” opening Thursday at Curtain Call Theatre in Latham, are not Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta Scott King.
While Love uses 1963 Alabama and the horrific church bombing that killed four young black girls on Sept. 15 of that year as the setting for the story, the play is not about the tragedy itself. Instead, the plot focuses on a local preacher and a rising star in the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Charles Grace, his wife Olivia, and their reaction to the bombing.
“The bombing just lets us know what the characters are going through emotionally, and my character is a new leader of the Civil Rights Movement who has to speak about the bombing,” said Lake, a Schenectady native. “It’s based on Martin Luther King, but my decision was to have my character contain elements of all the activists from that time. I threw them all into one person. And in the play there comes a point where you realize, despite all his good intentions and good work, he has his flaws and his insecurities, and that’s what the play is about.”
In the play, Olivia is a true partner in Charles’ life and career, her work including having written many of his most passionate and best speeches.
“This play, written by black, Queer playwright Donja Love, gives a far more authentic, human depiction of these characters, and that’s why I can say emphatically that I don’t go into playing Olivia simply thinking of her as Correta Scott King,” said Powell, a Schenectady resident, Shaker High grad and 2009 graduate of Ithaca College. “Parts of the character are Coretta, and there are also parts of my mother, my grandmothers, my great-grandmothers, my sisters, my friends and me in Olivia. She is so relatable in a way that is simultaneously empowering and heartbreaking.”
Olivia, like her husband, also has personal issues she must deal with.
“I find the older I get, the more I reconcile with the idea that no one is perfect and in fact most of us are incredibly flawed,” said Powell. “But we are redeemable and endearing in our own independent ways because the human experience is so multifaceted and layered, and at times traumatic; for some more than others.”
Directing the Curtain Call production is Capital Region theater stalwart Chris Foster, who has worked with both Lake and Powell before.
“Angelique is a great actress and very easy to work with,” Foster said of Powell. “As a director, you don’t want to be the guy who’s always holding the water. Angelique comes in and she’s ready to explore and do her thing. She’s great.”
Foster hasn’t directed Lake before but he did perform with him on stage in a Curtain Call production of “Ben Butler” back in January of 2020.
“I love the whole audition process and seeing new people come in, and while I’ve worked with Michael before, I’ve never directed him,” said Foster. “So when he auditioned I knew I liked him for the part. I’ve known Michael from when I was teaching a class at SCCC, and I know his work from the Will Kempe Players.”
Like his two actors, Foster says he’s not trying to paint an accurate picture of the relationship between MLK and his wife.
“This play is jammed full of stuff, and the church bombing is just the kickoff that gives us the setting,” said Foster. “It’s about a minister who has to speak at a funeral for the little girls, but it’s not MLK. It might be loosely based on King and Coretta, but it isn’t them. It’s a love story about a couple. One is the dominant figure and the other is the person behind that figure, and how resentment sort of foments from being in that position.”
“Fireflies” opened in New York City in October of 2018, and is the middle work in a series of three plays by Love. The first play, “Sugar in Our Wounds,” was set in 1862 and opened in July of 2018, while the third play in the series, “In the Middle,” centers around the Black Lives Matter movement and was being workshopped before the COVID-19 Pandemic hit.
“I was part of a group that got together monthly to read plays,” said Foster, explaining how he and Curtain Call Theatre Founder Carol Max chose to produce Love’s play. “We felt like there were a lot of good plays out there, and we wanted to know more about them. Some of them aren’t produced on a regular basis, but we were looking for something that had some real value to it, and we came across this play. I got very excited about it when I started reading it.”
So did Powell.
“I find, particularly when it comes to portrayals of Black people, all Black people, that the portrayal can be very one or two dimensional,” said Powell. “I like this play because it’s a very real depiction of these people.”
Powell and Lake are the only two actors on stage. The set was designed by Frank Oliva, while Lily Fossner did the lighting and Alex Dietz-Kest the sound design.
WHERE: Curtain Call Theatre, 1 Jeanne Jugan Lane, Latham
WHEN: Jan. 6-30; performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sunday. There will be a Saturday matinee on Jan. 15 at 3 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $30
MORE INFO: Visit www.curtaincalltheatre.com or call (518) 877-7529