Fighting to Stay Alive…and Human
By Geary Danihy
“War is hell,” said General Sherman. That’s a man’s perspective. For women, at least the women in Danai Gurira’s new play, Eclipsed, which recently opened at Yale Repertory Theatre, war is an existential nightmare, a brutal assault on body, mind and spirit that continuously poses the questions: What are you willing to do to survive? How much of your humanity are you willing to cede to the dogs of war?
Set in a LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) rebel camp in Bomi County, Liberia, in 2003, Eclipsed tells the story of five women, four of whom are the “wives” of a rebel commander and the fifth a representative of a coalition of women’s organization trying to end a civil war that, in two installments, has been going on since 1989.
Slow to get off the mark, the play devotes just a bit too much time to exposition establishing who the characters are and their relationship to each other. Also hampering rapid audience involvement is the dialect, for although the official language of Liberia is English, it is an English with a lilting cadence, a repetition of words for emphasis and a tendency to tack on an “O” at the end of words.
However, once the “stage is set” and the ear has become accustomed to the dialect, Eclipsed drives forward with both abundant humor and drama as the five women are inexorably changed by the experience of war.
The play is more about the battle for souls than it is about the battle for territory or power. It was common for LURD and other rebel forces to capture women and then “share them” amongst their fellows, leaving their victims, if alive, shattered physically, psychologically and emotionally. The compound where three of the women – Bessie (Pascale Armand), Helena (Stacey Sargeant) and a young Girl (Adepero Oduye) – are held captive operates under a more “benign” philosophy, for the three are the “wives” of the camp’s CO, and as such are not to be shared. Hence, these women have it “better” than their counterparts in other compounds, and although they would rather be free, they understand that reality dictates they stoically accept the situation.
However, a pecking order of sorts has arisen amongst the women, with Wife # 1, Helena, ruler of the roost, such as it is, Wife # 3, Bessie, the feisty, somewhat rebellious “daughter” who is carrying the CO’s child, and the newcomer, Wife # 4, the Girl, not much more than a child bride. Wife #2, Maima (Zainab Jah), is absent, having joined the rebel forces as a soldier after a falling out with Wife # 1.
It is Maima’s return to the compound for a visit that sparks the play into life, for she has opted not to be a pawn. As a soldier, she is not at the beck and call of any male soldier with an itch to scratch. To the Girl, who has become the CO’s favorite, Maima’s siren call to join her as a soldier is enticing. Slowly, she falls under Maima’s sway and in a nicely balanced scene directed by Liesl Tommy, Maima instructs the Girl in the fine art of firing an AK-47 as Rita (Shona Tucker), the women’s organization representative, teaches Helena how to spell her name by writing in the dirt with a stick.
Thus, ever so slowly, the play narrows its focus as Helena begins to see a life beyond the compound and the Girl becomes a soldier, only to realize the price that must be paid for the “freedom” Maima enjoys. Forced to kill and to stand by while atrocities are committed, the Girl’s innocence is torn away from her, which leads to the final scenes when, the civil war now over, Helena, with Rita’s help, vies for the Girl’s soul against Maima, who refuses to turn away from war as a way of life.
The initial minutes of the play may drag a bit, but what saves them from being soporific is the high-spirited, animated Armand, whose character is the source of much of the play’s humor. She is conniving, crafty, and irrepressible as she constantly tests just how far she can go over the lines drawn by Helena.
Sargeant’s work is also very solid, for as Helena she exudes a quiet strength and soulful acceptance of reality – she is demeaned by her situation but never loses her strong sense of self. She is matched, at least in strength, by Tucker, who enters a bit stiff as the “organization” woman but by show’s end offers the audience a picture of a successful woman who has seen the devastation of war and has, against the odds, decided to do something about it.
However, it is with Oduye as the Girl and Jah as the female soldier, Maima, that we find the most riveting work, especially in a scene in the second act when Oduye recounts her involvement in an atrocity – I dare any audience member to move an inch while she is telling her tale – only to have Jah attack her for her weakness. This same dramatic tension is brought to the show’s final moments, as Oduye provides a masterful portrait of a soul in torment and Jah a soul so subsumed by war it now, like a death junkie, needs the carnage to survive.
A great deal of credit must go to Gurira, who travelled to Liberia to interview many of the women who had been involved in the conflict. Her work might have taken the form of simple narrative (or, even worse, diatribe), but she has been able to take what the women told her and turn it into a drama that engages the audience on many levels, not the least of which is the visceral. So too does Broken Chord Collective’s sound design and music, although I could have used the music delivered at a slightly lower decibel level.
Eclipsed runs through Saturday, Nov. 14. For tickets or more information call 432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org
This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.