From the look of the one room shack on a barren stage, we know we are in for some disturbing difficult theatre. Eclipsed is a tale about Liberia, Revolution/Civil War and the women captives who must try to survive it, and we know it’s not going to be all sunshine and lollipops. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the playful innocence of the writing and the deep maternal care that we are witness to. These women we see before us are young, we are reminded, and even though we are made aware of the horrific and brutal circumstances that they find themselves entrapped in, they are sill teenage girls with teenage girl fantasies. Danai Gurira writes dialogue between these young adult women that is both fun, flirtatious, and caring, but managed to also make us keenly aware of the traumatic imprisoned life they have been dragged into at gunpoint.
Beautifully directed with unflinching honesty by Liesl Tommy, Eclipsed makes us painfully aware of the history and the terror of these women’s lives. Abducted from their homes, families, towns, and villages by gunmen, these women are dehumanized; forced into the role of sexual ‘wifedom’ to the commander. The three women we first are introduced to seem in some ways to be a caring little family of sorts, and they speak as if they are living somewhat of a lucky life in comparison to the other young women we hear about, as these three are the ‘wives’, called by their numbered rank, of only one man, a powerful rebel leader in the Second Civil War in Liberia. Other woman are abducted and used to satisfy the sexual lust and violence of the soldiers in this army, passed around like a rag doll, where as these three live a more ‘protected’ life. They are only required to cook, serve, and service this one man, if and when they are called for. Gurira portrays this nightmare in a casual but terrifying manner, and although we aren’t shown, we feel the violence and the daily terror they somehow are living through, as they jump to attention to see which one will be chosen today.
Saycon Sengbloh as wife #1 (Helena) is magnificent as the mother hen of this little room where they live. Protective yet utilizing her power as #1 when she can, it is one subtle and wonderful performance. She has been here so long she has forgotten what life is like outside of this existence and actually seems empowered by the hierarchy and her role. Wife #3 (a gloriously funny and charming Pascale Armand as Bessie) lives her life closest to what one may recognize as a teenage girl; self involved, jealous, yet sweet, pregnant with the commander’s child, and needy of #1’s mothering and authority. In this room, there is another, first hidden from view, but eventually learns to be called wife #4, Lupita Nyong’o (Academy Award winner for 12 Years a Slave) making her Broadway debut. Her character, stolen from the city, is the focal point and has the greatest arc of the story, coming in as a learned innocent and leaving as a war destroyed adult. It’s a glorious portrayal of need, fear, and an attempt to regain control and power in horrific confinement. It’s simple and straightforward, innocent and tortured, complex and devistating.
Two other women from polar opposite mind sets come into play, pulling at these women in different directions. Both are representing true to life and historic characters. One, a former ‘wife’ turned vicious warrior, intensely played by Zainab Jah (Maima), and the other, a white clad respected woman of peace (a regal Akosua Busia as Rita),a member of the Women’s Council. Both represent real life creations of this Civil War. The women that became soldiers were known as the most vicious and violent, especially to the women of the towns they invaded. The respected members of the Women’s Council managed to assert their maternal power against huge odds and bring forward concepts of peace to a seemingly never ending war. For Rita, much hinges on these abducted women remembering who they once were, and to embrace their former maternal-given names reminding them who they once were and what they once believed in.
One by one, their real and true names come forth, and ground them in their humanity, at least for some of these women. Power and control get mixed up with survival and autonomy. And for certain characters, their war-torn dehumanized selves are hard to abandon. It is what they learned to know, and what gave them a certain kind of strength when they needed it the most. The question remains: Will they regain themselves and return to the world they once knew and had faith in once the end of the Civil War comes in 2003? Or are they changed for ever more?