Danai Gurira raises the voices of thousands of African women in the production of Eclipsed, an immersing drama that reflects the different social realities of Liberian women during times of warfare, and demonstrates how resilience and strength of character play a key role in survival. Directed by Liesl Tommy and performed at the Public Theater, the play focuses on the struggles that Liberian women faced and the complex decisions they had to make during the Civil Wars, specifically during the time in which the war rebels were trying to defeat Liberia’s longtime dictator Charles Taylor in 2003. Eclipsed is about oppression and the experience of suffering; however, the play depicts a world in which women have no time for suffering or grieving over their own situation; there is only time to keep going and endure the struggles that they face and the ones that will keep coming.
The play takes place in a barely furnished and precarious room with bullet holes, were the “wives” of the commander officer live. Trapped by the fear of the possible consequences of running away and having to face the horrors of war in the streets, the First Wife (Pascale Armand) and the Third Wife (Stacey Sergeant) are the ones that live there. Armand’s character has been the one that stayed the longest, and Sergeant’s character is pregnant with the commander’s officer baby.The dehumanizing and oppressing situation of these characters is often contrasted with the unpredictable and tense visits done by the formerly known as the Second Wife (Zainab Jah), who decided to turn into a war rebel and fight against the Liberian army. These women are visited by Rita (Akosua Busia), who is part of the Peace Women’s council in Liberia and who visits them with the humanitarian intention of showing them that there is hope beyond their situation. Besides representing the women who used their privilege to make their voices heard, Rita also represents a maternal figure, searching for her lost daughter, and trying to remind the other women that they have mothers too, that they had lives before the war, and that they have a name: that they are someone. Because of Rita, the names of these three women eventually come to light, being Helena, Bessie, and Maima, respectively.
Armand, Sergeant, Jah and Busia’s performances are powerful and engaging, and Oscar Winner Lupita Nyong’o joins the talented ensemble with her skillful and compelling performance, which adds to the visceral and emotional aspects of the play. While the other characters have names, Nyong’o’s character does not have a specific one in the play. This character is mentioned as The Girl in the program, and this is because she embodies different identities and goes through a number of transformations, showing the audience the different dimensions and the complexity of her existence. Nyong’o’s character symbolizes the lives of thousands of women and the choices they had to make after being positioned in a situation that victimize and dehumanize them by brutally disintegrating their spirits and voices.She initially appears as an innocent girl who ran away from violence in her village, and who eventually transforms into a military rebel with he means of breaking from the abusive and dehumanizing situation of being turned into a man’s object.
A powerful aspect of all of the characters in Eclipsed is that although the different ways in which they experience suffering are shown, it is also seen that they endure them with plenty of humor, finding joy and strength of character in the present. Gurira’s use of humor is balanced enough that the audience encounters moments of laughter and entertainment, while still urgently receiving the message that the characters in the play are going through struggles that need to be acknowledged and dealt with on a daily basis, and that these struggles and oppressing situations should be taken very seriously.
With all said, Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed is not a play that promises a happy outcome. The lights fade with Nyongo’s character upstage, looking left to right, with a backpack on her back and with a gun on her hand, trying to discern where to go. The plot remains raw, indeterminate and suspenseful, and the audience sees and feels the fear, uncertainty and the need for survival that pierces the atmosphere. Nevertheless, the characters that were initially found detached from the faculty of their voices and potential have now regained conscience of their worth and of the power of knowledge; the knowledge that they are someone and that they have a story; the knowledge that they have someone truly worth fighting and loving for in times of war: themselves.