By Danai Gurira
Directed by Liesl Tommy
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
Liberia’s Civil Wars created havoc in the fragile West African Nation from 1980 until 2003. The political upheaval often eclipsed the myriad of humanitarian crises generated by the fighting in the region including massacres of civilians, unlawful prison camps, refugee crises, and the capture, captivity, and rape of local women. Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed” focuses narrowly on the lives of five Liberian women and their stories of survival during the Second Civil War: two have lived in a LURD rebel army camp base for some time; one left the camp base to become a soldier; one is a member of the Liberian Women’s Initiative; and one – The Girl – is a recent arrival.
The women who have lived in the camp base before The Girl’s arrival – and the one who left to fight – refuse to use their given names and choose to refer to one another as “Wife #1 (Saycon Sengbloh), Wife #2 (Zainab Jah), and Wife #3 (Pascale Armand).” Their identity in captivity has become defined by their relationship to their captor the Commanding Officer of the rebel compound they were brought to after being kidnapped. These “wives” prepare food for the CO, obediently line up when he shows up, and nervously wait for him to decide which he will victimize sexually. His victims have no choice in the matter: the only control they have is to cleanse themselves after their submissive encounters. In the midst of this horrific scene of captivity, The Girl (Lupita Nyong’o) finds her way into the compound seeking safety from the military struggle and serves as the “change agent” in what has become a family system entrenched in denial.
Although the events in “Eclipsed” are based on true events, the engaging play might best be viewed as an extended metaphor for raising the important rich and enduring question, “Are there alternatives to submission in situations of oppression?” This question legitimizes the actual struggle of all women who were incurred in LURD rebel army camp bases and radically engages the audience member to immerse themselves in the discussion by making rich connections to the rich plot lines driven by the authentic characters and their believable conflicts.
Under Liesl Tommy’s careful and inventive direction, the ensemble cast is uniformly brilliant and each delivers a powerful and authentic performance. Saycon Sengbloh’s Wife #1 and Pascale Armand’s Wife #3 have begun to wear the cloaks of oppression with some disregard for their humanity and have perhaps too easily settled into the roles of oppression and victimization and only envision being rescued as a remote possibility. Zainab Jah’s Wife #2, in shedding that cloak, decides to leave the camp, fight alongside the men and survive. She admonishes The Girl, “You feed dem, you not get eaten. Dat simple. Go and get de gals or I go’ have to tell dem you want to replace de gals today. Is it you or dem? Dis is how you survive, you understan’? So is it you or dem, Number Four?” And Lupita Nyong’o’s The Girl is torn between the two paths of coping and – after she initially joins Wife #2 on the battlefield – she faces the end of the war with painstaking choices that leave her and the audience deeply unsettled.
Finally, Akosua Busia’s Rita – the member of the Liberian Women’s Initiative – pleads with the women repeatedly to reclaim their identities by using their given names and prepare for the time when the Civil War would end. However, she knows her position is one of privilege that has brought her dangerously close to selling out. In her redemptive conversation with Wife #2, she confesses, “I stayed ’ere because I wont to profit from war, tinkin’ somehow my money gon’ keep me safe. It didn’t do noting for me dat day. How long you tink you can mock God before He mock you back?”
“Eclipsed” chronicles how five remarkable women face their captivity in a variety of ways – ways that women (and men) deal with oppressive and abusive situations daily and either survive, or escape, or die in their own very personal captivities. There are times one wishes playwright Danai Gurira’s writing could have been stronger, especially giving The Girl a more significant role throughout the play. She is the change agent and her struggles often seem to deserve more attention. She “can read and write and do all dem book ting” and reads from a biography about Bill Clinton which often gives the play a lighter touch. The Girl is a remarkable character that Lupita Nyong’o can certainly dig more deeply into if given the opportunity by the script and the direction.
This is an important play with an important story: the first Broadway production to feature an entirely black and female cast and creative team. “Eclipsed” is a redemptive and salvific story offered with distinctive grace and distinguished craft and not to be missed.