“Eclipsed,” Yale Repertory Theatre

--Irene Backalenick

“Eclipsed,” now running its last week at Yale Rep, is a gritty tale of African women surviving in a war zone. Why the title “Eclipsed”? It indicates that these lives have indeed been eclipsed, reduced to dark shadows. The drama rings with authenticity, and no wonder, since playwright Danai Gurira has based her tale on actual on-site interviews. With a grant which permitted her to travel to Liberia, she was able to reach a range of women who were victims, fighters and activists. (Liberia has had a long, bloody history of oppression, discrimination, and subjugation of its women. It is only now, under the leadership of a woman president—Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf--that a new Liberia begins to emerge, and there is hope for the future.)

Not that this tale is unique in African history, nor world history, for that matter. And the rape of women in wartime as a theme has already surfaced on stage and screen. Lynn Nottage’s brilliant “Ruined” (wartime in the Congo) said it all and proves a hard act to follow. But playwright Gurira, armed with direct, honest material, joins the fray. Gurira sets her tale in the small, primitive shack of a rebel army camp, Bomi County, Liberia, in 2003. There three women, known only as numbers one, three, and four, carry on their lives. They serve the needs, sexual and otherwise, of the company commander, jumping to attention whenever they hear his voice. Meanwhile, they bicker among themselves, fighting over scraps of food and clothing, with number one serving as a tough leader.

Each of the women returns from sexual sessions with the commander, washing herself  with a used rag and a bucket of water. It is life on the most primitive level. One neversees the commander himself, but he is a menacing presence throughout the play. Number two, who has long since disappeared, reappears as an armed fighter, and another older, educated woman who is working for peace also visits the camp. Under Liesl Tommy’s sharp direction, five fine actors (Pascale Armand, Stacey Sargeant, Adepero Oduye,
Zainab Jah, and Shona Tucker) play out the tragedy. These American actors seem to have captured the Liberian dialect to perfection, adding to the reality. Feisty performances from every one.

The design team is also right on target, underscoring the sense of place. Surprisingly, set designer German Cardenas is not defeated by Yale Rep’s large stage, but creates a small, confining shack in the rain forest. Elizabeth Barrett Groth’s costumes and Marcus Doshi’s lighting all work together effectively. In all, “Eclipsed” carries the strong message it is meant to do.

This review appears shortly after 11/9/09 in the Connecticut post and nytheaterscene.com

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