By Roz Friedman
When I was very young, I wrote a composition that I thought quite original. When I played it for my family, they were admiring of my earnest efforts, but quick to tell me that it was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Already written, they said. Danai Gurira, a young playwright who received many important awards for her work, “In the Continuum,” in which she performed and co-authored with Nikkole Salter, has created a new play, “Eclipsed.” While I admire her earnest efforts, I must insist that this play is a poor copy of “Ruined,” a better-developed piece by Lynn Nottage. And I am surprised that no one at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum or the Yale Rep., all theaters where this play has been produced, has recognized this.
“Ruined,” directed by Kate Whoriskey, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama, takes place in a rain forest in the Congo; there Mama Nadi runs a bar and house of prostitution, sincerely believing that she is saving the lives of the girls she employs, giving them only food, clothing and a roof over their head. They are unable to escape.
“Eclipsed” is set in Bomi County, Liberia, in a rebel army camp. There Helena, wife #1, acted with great purposefulness by Stacey Sargeant, lives in a run-down abode, cooks for and does the laundry of the chief rebel. She also gives advice and tries to protect Wives 2, 3, and 4, who are all prisoners there during one of the many wars without meaning or end. While in “Ruined” we see and feel the terror of the male rebel leaders, in “Eclipsed,” they are unseen lurking and raping among the trees. The trees in “Eclipsed” seem to be the same trees as in “Ruined,” but not lit as dramatically. The set is very similar as well. Both playwrights interviewed women in their countries to write their plays.
In “Eclipsed,” Pascale Armand as Bessie gives a charming performance as pregnant wife, #3 in love with former President Clinton from a book read to her by The Girl. Adepero Oduye is equally interesting as The Girl, who, although able to read and write, and adrift without parents, is attacked and becomes Wife #4; Zainab Jah is powerful as Maima, wife #2, turned soldier; ready to kill anyone and anything, she commandeers The Girl, who realizes that she cannot continue that life. Shona Tucker gives a clear portrayal of Rita, the founder of the peace committee that is striving to stop all wars. They are well- directed by Liesl Tommy. However, I found it very difficult to hear some of the dialogue and those around me had the same problem.
“Eclipsed” and “Ruined” are both very sad stories about desperate people, in particular women, in desperate times in desperate situations. Ironically, both end on the same note, with many of the characters fleeing for their lives as one war ends and before another begins. At the Yale Rep through November 14th.
This review originally aired on WMNR 88.1 FINE ARTS PUBLIC RADIO