The Roles of Women during the Liberian War
Living in NYC these past three months I discovered how this stimulating lifestyle can make the rest of the world almost disappear. This past week I had the chance to slow down for a couple hours and watch one of the last showing at the The Public Theater of Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, a riveting play about the Liberian civil war. This play demands to be heard by its audience. It delivers a powerful performance and serves to educate the Western world of the many innocent lives effected by war but most specifically the roles women are forced into during these times of conflict.
The play follows the intertwined lives of five different women during the Liberian civil war. The main character is a young girl, played by Oscar winning Lupita Nyong’o. After fleeing her hometown she finds brief refuge in the hut of two other young women who are both wives of the war camps general. Once Nyong’o becomes discovered by the general she immediately is forced into being his sexual servant. Together the three women live in a small hut kept alive by each other’s company, but forced to serve the needs of the general of their camp. When the young girl encounters the estranged sister wife Maima, now a female solider in hip bell bottoms and a tight belly shirt, she becomes tempted by the promises of free will and the power such a position has to offer. While the first act focuses on the hut in which the sister wives and the young girl are confined to, the second act shows the evolution of the young girl’s character; specifically her loss of innocence. Contrasting Maima’s character is an older business woman. Dressed in white she travels throughout Liberia attempting to bring peace to the land. Through her travels she hopes to provide yet another alternative for these women, a chance to become educated and the opportunity to be the young girls they once were. These five characters, through their story, show the limited roles women are forced to chose from during times of war.
While all characters in the play are female the male presence is extremely evident. Directed by Liesel Tommy, the play successfully delivers fear of male oppression. Her construction of the silent huddle between the three young girls was extremely clever to create this fear. The air in the room shifted when the two wives and young girl stood huddled in one corner of their hut as they anticipated who would be chosen as that nights sexual servant. When the chosen girl would raise her finger to her chest confirming the general’s request the tension in the room would swell. In this way Liesel Tommy was able to incorporate the power of male dominance successfully with an all female cast.
While the play deals with heavy material it balances intense topics like rape, kidnapping, and murder with humor. The art of this is not only in the comic relief it provides but it’s ability to reveal the humanity of these women confined in the camps. One example is the relationship between the second wife, played by Pascale Armand, and her hair. Even while being carried away during labor Armand screams for her precious blond wig lying on the floor. While the humor is necessary is lightening the mood it also gave a sense of universal humanity to these characters, showing the wife as a woman desiring to look attractive. Humorous scenes also contrasted the difference in culture between the United States and Liberia. When the wives huddled around Bill Clinton’s autobiography to decipher the difference between Hillary and Monica Lewinsky with their current sister wife situation it was both opportune for a joke and a comparison of current cultures. Dani Gurira’s script provided a deeper understanding to the context of the issues themselves by combining the topics of severity with lines of humor.
The props of Eclipsed were extremely powerful. The use of guns in the play dominated the second act. When Maima is introduced her gun remains a prop, almost an accessory to her attractive outfits. It symbolizes power and shows her status to the other women in the camp. The second act opens with both Maima and the young girl using these weapons in battle. The gun becomes a literal weapon and in multiple scenes is thrust into the audience itself aimed in the air and fired with gun shots sounding in the distance. While powerful in many scenes this action felt almost invasive breaking through the line which separates the fictional from real. In many respects this felt too extreme mirroring the play’s violent content. Another prop that felt very intrinsic to the play was the wash bucket that sat on the porch of the small hut. Before scenes of rape the direction would prompt us with the action of the young girl’s fearful huddle. After, the victim would return home to the hut to wash herself using the dirtied rag in the wash bin. The literal bucket paired with the slow action of the girls cleaning themselves provided a sense of reality without the needs for words. The props in this play demand the audience to face the emotions the anger and grief these women are forced to feel on a daily basis.
While this play deals with extremely heavy content it does so successfully. The lives we lead here in our Western bubble may help us to forget how blessed we truly are. It is important for a play like Eclipsed to remind us of the truths that exist outside our country and the oppression that still . Performances like these help to educate the public of the horror that still exists today by transporting their audiences across the world for two hours. This play help us to face reality in ways that other sources cannot.