Men start wars. Men leave home and family and fight wars. Yet, women and children bear so much of the actual brutality, pain, and suffering – usually silently and in the shadows. Their stories are rarely told, superseded in the poems of Homer, the plays of Shakespeare, and the movies of Hollywood by the soldiers who are portrayed the heroes – the very ones who are so often the cruel perpetrators of the women’s dire fates.
As a female playwright, Danai Gurira takes a bold step in beginning to fill this chasm in our collective storytelling through her recent, Tony-nominated play Eclipsed, currently in presentation with its African-American cast of five, stellar actresses at the Curran Theatre (in a production by The Public Theatre of New York). Taking place in 2003 toward the end of the devastatingly destructive, second Liberian civil war (1999-2003), the Zimbabwe, immigrant playwright provides a graphic, gripping accounting of the war from three, intertwining perspectives of the women who are caught in the rebel-versus-ruler conflagration. Women who are the slave wives of rebel soldiers, women who decide to join in the final days as rebel soldiers themselves, and women who lead nonviolent protests and negotiate for a lasting peace tell their stories as they also go about their daily lives of surviving.
All three sets of these women share the common trait of being victims themselves – victims who have been either captured and enslaved against their will (and subsequently raped time and again) or who have seen their husbands killed and/or children taken from them by either government soldiers or rebels ... or who have suffered all of these atrocities. Under the sensitive guidance and acute insight of Liesl Tommy as director, the Curran Theatre cast of Eclipsed opens our eyes how displaced, subjugated, and altogether noble women go about in their day-to-day living under the most harsh, cruel conditions imaginable. And we see how they also retain a sense of dignity, self-direction, mutual caring, and even humor when everything around them screams for them to do just the opposite.
The play centers in and around a jungle-bound hut that serves as home for the wives of one rebel leader, only identified as ‘him’ or as the CO (i.e., commanding officer). Always unseen by us but whose presence is always felt, the CO has stripped from these women their histories, former identities, and even their names. Known to each other only by a number in the order they arrived, the wives stand at attention each time the invisible CO enters their hut, where each wife’s few belongings are stuffed in a bucket and corner. Watching him pass slowly by with their eyes barely daring to look up and their faces full of trepidation, each waits to see who will be picked to come to his hut – and to be raped yet again. Upon returning, she will go to wash the private area between her legs with a rag from a bucket of water as the others try their best to look the other way while they sweep away the dust or prepare the CO’s dinner.
Already this two-minute sequence of Ms. Gurira’s script sears into our memory banks an entire volume on the suffering of any and all women of war.
At the age of twenty-five, Wife #1 already sees herself as too old ever to be something different than she is now, the barren wife of a CO who never calls her any more for satisfying his sexual needs but who does look to her to hold command over his household of wives. As Wife #1, Stacey Sargeant moves like a woman twice her age and has an air of constant caution and sense of complacency to a fate that her suffering has embedded deeply into her. When asked her the name given by her parents, she dare not speak it out loud and can only whisper after much entreating. But when she does at one point learn to print her name with a stick in the dirt, the pride and regained self-dignity Ms. Sargeant shows in Wife #1’s entire being over this one small act of defiance is astounding and memorable.
|Stacey Sargeant (#1), Ayesha Jordan (#4) & Janiece Abbott-Pratt (#3)|
Often pestering her with eager desire for something different to wear (since #1 gets to parcel out bundles of clothes and accessories sometimes given her by the CO that he has taken from killed victims) is the much more animated Wife #3 (a bouncy, wired, and often teasing Joniece Abbott-Pratt). A teenager forced into womanhood, she loves nothing better than dancing around the hut in her stringy wig to the static-filled music from their battery-powered radio -- often to be harshly shushed and reprimanded by #1 who fears disturbing and angering the near-by men. Wife #3 is pregnant with the CO’s baby and is none too happy about it, often crying or even hitting her own belly -- hoping to destroy the thing within her ... fearing it will a monster like its father.
Into their lives has come a young girl who looks barely in her teens, a girl #1 has rescued and is hiding under a tub each time the CO enters the hut. But nature’s call in the middle of the night leads the girl to wander away, to be discovered, to be raped, and to become Wife #4. As Wife #4, Ayesha Jordon brings a young girl’s energy, curiosity, and sense of excitement into the desolate hut, even as she trembles in the fear and horror of her too-frequent visits to the CO’s hut or as she cries silently at night in a curled, fetal position. (“She’s thinking of things that have been,” #1 explains to #2.) #4 has actually been to school, still hopes to be a doctor someday, and entertains to no end the other wives reading their one partially ripped-apart book about someone named Clinton who lives in a White House and is having trouble because of his #2 named Monica.
|Ayesha Jordan (#4) & Adeola Role (#2)|
Suddenly breaking into their days of both ongoing humdrum and constant, fearful anticipation is Wife #2, wearing long braids, tight and revealing top, and fancy jeans. But she also carries an Ak-47 and wears soldier boots. Adeola Role struts her cockiness and seethes with callousness as the now-rebel-soldier, totally committed to a war of freedom against “the monkeys who killed our women and raped our grandmothers.” She and #1 clearly do not like each other, but to young #4, she begins to sound more like a prophet and not a devil. She convinces #4 that “you gotta do de tings you called to do,” leading Ayesha Jordan (as #4) into a transformation that is bone-chilling to behold as a child warrior emerges with the eventual ability to match and even exceed the zealous cruelty of #2.
The kid who is now willing to perpetuate the kind of atrocities once done to her finds her comfort in, “God is keeping my conscience and keeping it clean for me.”
Through his designs of scene and costumes, Clint Ramos has created a confined, claustrophobic abode for these wives and has visually defined their various connections to the war in the clothes they wear. The lighting design of Jen Schriever drapes the small, rotating hut of stone and corrugated metal roof in the colors of vast African skies and the hues of scary moments of war’s horrors. Broken Chord’s hard-beat musical interludes as well as sudden interruptions with the realistic sounds of nearby war ensure the tension and uncertainty of war is always in our consciousness.
The third leg of the triangle of women’s roles in this war is represented by Akosua Busia as Rita, a member of the peace-seeking Women in White whose non-violence and diligence by 2003 is about to pay off. She arrives at the hut with the message, “It’s going to end” – something of which #1 is hopeful but skeptical, #3 is unsure why that should actually change her life, #2 wants no part and plans to keep fighting and looting, and #4 is caught in the middle. All faces of the war these women are together fighting and surviving in their own ways are starkly, heartbreakingly represented – even as the end of the war looms so near.
From opening moments to final blackout of this Curran Theatre production, Eclipsed presents Danai Gurira’s testament to the bravery, the suffering, and the sheer willingness to endure by women who submit but never give up, who fight but hold onto some self-dignity, and who protest but fear as much as hope.
Rating: 5 E
Eclipsed continues through March 19, 2017 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at https://sfcurran.com/ or by calling the Box Office at 415-358-1220 between 10 a.m. and 6 pm. Monday through Friday.
Photo Credits: Little Fang Photography