Civil war changes everything when it ravages a troubled country like Liberia. Men get conscripted or murdered. Women must choose sides while normal life collapses around them. Warlords abduct daughters and wives from their families, taking them hundreds of miles away to care for violent masters (sometimes their husbands). Survival might mean forgetting their family and ethnicity, even their name.
Eclipsed, a forceful new play by Danai Gurira, asks us to consider the kinds of choices women make in these violent circumstances. That alone is a feat in the American theater, which largely favors living rooms and domestic issues and tends to ignore foreign voices (unless they’re from England). Eclipsed is a rare specimen: a drama that gives us a point of access to an anguished corner of the developing world, showing the humanity that sustains it.
Gurira plants her play in some hopeful terrain: Founded as a West African republic for released American slaves, Liberia’s name means “Land of the Free.” Women suffered greatly when fighting broke out in the 1990s — a struggle between loyalists to the dictator Charles Taylor and rebel factions aiming to oust him. Some — like Eclipsed‘s battle-hardened character Maima (Zainab Jah) — took up arms alongside the men. But Liberian women activists also brought an end to the brutal conflict in 2003, staging marches and blocking negotiators from leaving peace talks. (Today president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first elected woman to head an African nation.)
Eclipsed takes place before those conclusive events but lets us see how they became possible. A small bullet-pocked shelter holds the four “wives” of C.O., a rebel army commander who never appears but whose presence requires the petrified women to drop everything and stand at attention. Other times C.O. summons them to his bed offstage. The matronly Helena (Saycon Sengbloh) and the very pregnant Bessie (Pascale Armand) have taken the Girl (Lupita Nyong’o) under their wing following her arrival in the camp. They tutor her in the ways of the camp; in return she applies her book learning and reads them daily segments from a tattered old copy of a biography of Bill Clinton. Meanwhile two visitors compete for the Girl’s allegiance: Maima trains her to fight, while the visiting peace activist Rita (Akosua Busia) urges her to resist.
The production gathers steam from a superb cast: Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for her 2013 performance in 12 Years a Slave, fills her silences with bewilderment and terror. Her monologue, when the Girl unravels and remembers her mother, is exquisite and illuminating. Jah too gives a memorable performance, underlining Maima’s defiant counter-wisdom about how turning violent makes a woman strong. Director Liesl Tommy has found a depth and purpose that helps the production transcend the occasionally repetitive dialogue.
Despite the emotional power of the production — and its wonderful ironies when the women alight on Monica Lewinsky — the narrative has some significant problems. When Rita arrives, she seems to bring didacticism into the play with her, and the story’s resolution feels unconvincingly schematic. But Eclipsed is more interesting viewed as a series of ethical portraits rather than as a yarn with psychological payoffs. We watch a constellation of women over time as they make ambivalent, sometimes ill-advised choices in the face of constant threats and material desperation. The real battle takes place when bonds of sisterhood and maternity come up against urgent fears and hopes. War dehumanizes, the playwright seems to say, but it also uncovers inner strengths that might someday alter the world — and save it from men.
By Danai Gurira
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street