New York City Theater
Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed” is a fiery, stirring play or, rather, it was when first seen at Yale Rep. On Broadway, it’s been turned into a slog due in large part to accents so thick they’re nigh impenetrable. (There were intermission walkouts.) Instead of establishing, then softening the patois, the production insists on emphasizing it. Although acted with resourcefulness and sincerity, with the same director and two of the same actors as at Yale, it pancakes.
Too bad, since the drama offers insights into certainly one of the most important worldwide issues of the day: women enslaved by men, some through choice, some through imposition. Its dissection of specific women in a specific country stands for all women wandering in the wilderness of male dominance.
They’re women without names, just Wife #1, #3, #4. Missing is #2, having escaped captivity and sex slavery to join rebel forces. The wives who stayed are beholden not only to the compound’s commander who summons them for fornication, but to themselves as anonymous beings, their pasts eclipsed, their futures uncertain.
This is Liberia in 2003, the year rebels ousted dictator Charles Taylor. The women are held by a warlord somewhere in the woods. All have vague memories of their backgrounds, having become ciphers to be used at will. Their homes, their parents, are forgotten in the fog of enslavement. Yearning especially for their mothers, they cling together, forging a family of their own.
Wife #1 runs the harem. Wife #3 is flighty, with the openness of youth. The Girl, who will become Wife #4, is the most vulnerable to the unseen commander. When he gives a signal, these subjugated women rush into a fearful line-up, backs stiff and eyes wide, waiting to be chosen.
When the former Wife #2 appears with an AK-47 slung over her shoulder, wearing tight jeans and a provocative top, she is a walking statement of insurrection. The Girl’s vulnerability makes her most willing to join #2 who, in her freedom, can now call herself by her given name, Maima. Fighting like men, scenes between the two of them focus on the power that accrues, not to acquiescence but defiance.
Taught not only how to kill but how to intimidate captured women who, in turn, will service officers (an irony of war not lost on the women), The Girl is the fulcrum for the tug between opposing sides. At one end is rebellious Maima, dressed in black; at the other is peace activist Rita, dressed in white. As they wrestle over The Girl, they represent body vs. soul, war vs. peace, jungle vs. city, the gun vs. the book.
“Eclipsed” has a lot in common with Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined,” though it is less rich and lacks that play’s cumulative power. Which doesn’t mean it’s not inspiring in its depiction of women whose lives have been eclipsed by men’s thirst for power and sex. (The women giggle when reading about President Clinton and his own “Wife #2,” someone named Monica.)
Under Liesl Tommy’s fluid direction, the five actors shine, creating an exotic, idiosyncratic African world. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o is lustrous as The Girl, a figure ambivalent about her loyalties, someone whose dreams are deferred yet always burning.
As Wife #1 (real name: Helena), Saycon Sengbloh is a pillar of strength, pragmatic, accepting, while Zainab Jah is fierce as rebellious Wife #2. Akosua Busia is an empathetic Rita, the emissary from the women’s organization devoted to end the civil war.
Pascale Armand, repeating her stint in the Yale production, is beguiling as brassy, sassy, feisty and funny Bessie (the character’s real name). As seemingly enslaved as the others, she nevertheless feels emotional ties to her situation, in thrall to her captor, her protector and, after all, her child’s father.
In the end, playwright Gurira offers hope. After all, Liberia now has a woman president, the first female head of state in Africa. In the future are promises of schooling and business, though war and violence endure. Choices must be made yet, at least, there are choices. Would that the same could be said for women in other parts of Africa and Asia.
--David A. Rosenberg
March 27, 2016