Numerology in the Jungle
By Tom Nissley
A remarkable play celebrating the resilience of women is playing at Yale Rep through November 14. Danai Gurra’s "Eclipsed" introduces us to the illiterate world of the camp women who accompany the rebels in Liberia’s civil wars. Helena (Stacey Sargeant) and Bessie (Pascale Armand), otherwise known as Number 1 and Number 3, try to hide a newcomer (Adepero Oduye) who is a young girl and a runaway, but in short order the new girl become Number 4. The numbering system refers to a sort of list of ‘wives’ of the Commanding Officer, who lives in the cabin to which the women’s shack is attached. The CO has stopped calling for Helena,, and is still calling for Bessie, who is now pregnant; he also begins calling for Number 4. Order is maintained by a strict rule. Number 1 dictates with authority how things work; she cooks, they share cleaning, they don’t complain about having small rations of manioc, etc.
And then there’s Number 2 (Zainab Jah). Number 2 left the ‘wives’ and became a commando. She is sadly avoided by Numbers 1 and 3 - for not having remained a submissive woman - but she manages to convince Number 4 to join her and become a commando. It’s the only way to survive if you don’t want to be used as the CO’s sexpot... And so the young girl, afraid at first to even hold a gun, learns in a very short while to dispatch the enemy with abandon.
Enter Rita (Shona Tucker). Rita is a member of Women for Peace, a group working to end the war and return the country to normalcy. She has been a successful business woman; after her teen-aged daughter disappeared from her school - how? -, Rita was motivated to campaign for peace. So she is in the jungle camp, working with these numbered women to help them think of themselves as having names instead of numbers. It’s a powerful image. In a confrontation with Number 2, she risks her own death, and near the play’s end she carefully extracts the gun from the hands of Number 4 while it is aimed at Helena and caresses the girl who is torn between survival as a commando and survival as a woman with other values. Rita refers to the girl as "my daughter," which at least symbolizes her reason for being in the forest, and leads to the myriad of interpretations that may be carried home from "Eclipsed."
"Eclipsed" is a difficult play, with overwhelming intensity. The director, Liesl Tommy, has been with the play since early workshops at the McCarter Theater in Princeton and at its premiere at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C. There are no male actors, but the abuse of men to their camp women is a major theme; how the women survived as persons is its counterpart. You will not want to have been there, where these women are, but you will understand why Ms. Gurira chose to describe it. The set, by German Cardenas Aliminos, and costumes by Elizabeth Barrett Groth, along with exceptional lights (Marcus Doshi) and sound (The Broken Chord Collective) allow for a fine production.
Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre November 2, 2009
Tom Nissley is a well-known realtor in New Canaan, and a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. He has reviewed plays and music events that expand the quality of life in Connecticut for 25 years, and he's also available, of course, to consult with you about real estate.
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