by Wanda Sabir
In “Eclipsed,” playwright Danai Gurira holds the politics of rape and war up to the light and finds it is gone, hidden behind a cloud or the orbit of a larger constellation. How are the politics of the Black female body somehow trivialized or ignored when sexual slavery or rape and war fill mouths, the atrocities dripping from chins; however, no one wipes away the stain?
Currently up through Sunday, March 19, at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco, the play asks audiences to consider the violence of war and what people do when cornered to survive.
It is the second Liberian Civil War, President Charles Taylor is at it again and this time there is a concerted response by insurgents. The only problem is, innocent people, the majority women and girls, are brutalized, captured and sold.
“Eclipsed” characters are understandably fierce; they have to be – life is so unpredictable when one is a pawn in civil conflict. Yet, the work has moments of joy and happiness. We find ourselves laughing when Wife #3’s hairpiece scares Rita and Wife #4, who think it is an animal.
Other moments are the women sitting together in the evening listening to Girl read from a biography on President Clinton, a white man with a second wife named Monica Lewinsky. The women find a sense of normal as they wash clothes, cook food, dance, tell stories and dare to dream.
Known for work that explores African Diaspora themes, the “Zimerican,” as the Zimbabwean-American writer calls herself, says she is not trying to be political; however, if telling stories that reflect her reality and that of her people, translates as political, then so be it.
Gurira says in an interview with Kevin Sessums, the writer, the reason she started writing in the first place was to excavate her sisters from the battlefield. In her “honors paper at Macalester College,” the scholar looks at “the neglect of Black women in psychology.” She agrees with Sessums that she has “always been drawn to speaking out for the invisible in society.” Her work says, “No. We are here.” It bears “witness to those who are not witnessed” (Curran program 13).
The playwright says she grew tired of having to “study and embody dramatic narratives which did not ‘speak to who [she] is and who people who look like her are.’” She says she became “‘outraged and decided to address [this omission] in a very practical way. A very literal way’” (Ibid.13). What she has done is write plays, direct films and act. She is a very busy woman.
Hers is the first production on Broadway to have an all-Black woman cast, playwright and director, South African Liesl Tommy. This latest work continues to challenge prevailing notions of what it means to be a free woman.
In “Eclipsed,” we meet two, then three wives. Girl makes four; however, in the beginning of the story, we are hopeful, as are Wives #1 and #3, that perhaps the two of them can keep Girl safe. At 15, Girl (Ayesha Jordan), wandering in the forest, stumbles into the women, who share their meager food – cassava and, sometimes, no cassava. Stacey Sergeant’s Wife #1 allows her to stay and the two older women, the eldest 24, enjoy the youngster.
Girl has fond memories of her mother and father, school where she learns to read and compute. However, the idyllic home life is interrupted once Girl is captured. She accepts her lot with Wife #1 and Wife #3, who shelter her until Girl is presented with an alternative: Wife #2 (actress Adeola Role). Girl hears about this outlaw “wife,” who is bad news, according to Wife #1.
As the days move into weeks and months, Girl tries to acquiesce or submit to the fact that she is someone else’s property to do what he wishes with her. Each day the three wives line up when the commander comes by to choose his dessert for the night. Girl is chosen over the others; Wife #3 (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) is pregnant and Wife #1 is older than the other two and not attractive to the commander, who nonetheless needs her to run his compound: feed him and keep the wives in order.
The women keep a bowl for the returning wife who wipes between her legs, as if this gesture can erase memories of violations.
The unwelcome Wife #2 (Adeola Role) returns. She courts Girl, exploiting her fears and desires. She buys Girl gifts – pink fingernail polish, a dress and then an AK-47. Wife #2 – warrior name “Disgruntled” – romanticizes war and life as a soldier.
Girl thinks “rape” is the epitome of hell until she stops collecting firewood to collect contraband to feed hungry beasts. She learns too late that the beasts also bite her, that just association with them makes her eventually one of the pack.
We see the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder in both “Disgruntled” and “Girl.” Rita asks them to say their names. She’s the Peacekeeper, who is one of the hundreds of Liberian women who push for peace talks with the warring forces to stop the violence and end the war. The women wear white and set up a vigil outside the president’s palace and pray. Other women visit the guerrilla army in the forests to talk peace. It is here she meets the wives.
Bossy and fearless, Akosua Busia’s Rita “coaches the women soldiers to say their names, the names their mothers called them.” Girl and Disgruntled point guns at her instead.
The speaking of their names calls the child soldiers back into their bodies and for a moment the veil lifts, and they can see ahead, the eclipse behind them. Yet, the memory lingers, settles like a cloud, darkness, a place more comfortable than the light.
Girl says in tears to Disgruntled that she is cursed, that she cannot see her mother’s face or hear her voice. Truly alone, the girl child falls to her knees and tries to remember her prayers.
This eclipse covers more than the moon or large star we call the sun. Girl realizes in this moment the enormity of how she has traded her life, that she is all alone in her haunting thoughts and the world she has made. With each raid, with each killing, with each witnessing of atrocities like gang rape and execution, she retreats further into a hard, barren, solitary cell space.
Those of us seated literally on the sidelines find it difficult as pedestrians to say what her choices might be given the same circumstances. There is an authenticity present in the work. Perhaps we hear the voices of the women the playwright met in Liberia: the mothers, sisters, soldiers, children born to sex slaves, survivors. This play is about the ones who made it despite the difficulty then and perhaps now.
Gurira says in a NPR interview that she hadn’t known about the conflict in Liberia until she saw a photo and article about child soldiers. Her play was going up at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C. “I didn’t know anything about women fighters in African wars,” Gurira tells Jennifer Ludden. “And just to see these women standing there, you know, in their jeans and … fashionable tops and their hair is all done – and they’re all carrying AK-47s – was just an image I couldn’t get out of my head.”
“Gurira, who was born in the U.S. but raised in Zimbabwe, knew that one day she’d try to get behind the eyes of the fighting women, to tell their story. So in 2007, she journeyed to Liberia to learn more. On her trip, she met women fighters — as well as women who promoted peace.
“I met women who would tell me about how they would just walk into the bush and talk rebel soldiers out of their guns and encourage them to look at school and to think about their future,” she says. ‘I was amazed. I mean … [the women peacemakers] were really fearless.’”
Stacey Sergeant’s Wife #1’s compassion and attachment to the younger wife, a glimpse of the child she once was, is beautiful to see as she otherwise steels and guards her emotions. Both Wife #1 and peacekeeper Rita’s ability to be vulnerable with one another heighten the emotion in certain scenes – one such scene is when Rita teaches Wife #1 to write her given name.
Adeola Role’s Wife #2 is hard, yet it isn’t until we hear her story that we learn why she has chosen her position even if she knows it puts her at risk. What Girl has to decide is, can she forgive herself? Can she end the war inside?
When the play continues after the final bow, after the ovation, the audience is told about other girls, other women, recently kidnapped or abducted in Northern Nigeria. We repeat the name of one of the girls after the person on stage, and by this collective naming and acknowledging of this girl who is missing, we commit ourselves to holding the space for her return.
Listen to a recent interview with Stacey Sargeant and Joniece Abbott-Pratt.
Other plays closing soon: “Port Chicago 50” (closes March 19) at Berkeley Rep; “Without Mercy” (closes March 25) at The Phoenix in SF and “Leaving the Blues” at New Conservatory in SF (closes April 2).
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.