Danai Gurira Shines Light on African Patriarchy
by Sydney Roberts
In dark political times, Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed,” a wartime herstory from Liberia about five women, brings to light to women’s indomitable resilience and sisterhood.
During Women’s History Month, the elegantly restored Curran Theatre welcomes “Eclipsed,” directed by Leisl Tommy. Tommy directed the award-winning play by TV actress-turned-playwright Danai Gurira. Set in 2003, “Eclipsed” tells the story of five women living in war-torn Liberia, where thousands of Liberian women were taken from their families, left wounded and displaced, and forced into military and sexual bondage.
Enslaved by a Liberian warlord, who never appears onstage, the women of “Eclipsed” are raped, beaten, and even stripped of the names their mothers gave them. They refer to one another by labels such as “Wife No. 1” and “Girl.”
The power of naming and identity is apparent in “Eclipsed.” At the end of the show, director Liesl Tommy joined the cast onstage to dedicate the performance to two girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram. We all joined in speaking their names aloud and my eyes welled with tears. This powerful shared moment reminds us that the women’s struggles in “Eclipsed” are still with us. We feel the darkness that surrounds mere survival for women and children facing terror, fear, and domination .
The women in “Eclipsed” can only hope to survive day by day while the absent Commander, their captor, rules their lives. Dressed in tattered T-shirts and dirt-stained African fabrics, the women huddle amid the filth of their bullet-ridden hut. We are shocked to find that the natural leader, Wife No. 1 (a convincing Stacey Sargeant) and the pregnant Wife No. 3 (the energetic Joniece Abbott-Pratt) are hiding a 15-year-old girl, who has lost her family. They are concealing the Girl under a plastic tub.
The women can only dream of escaping using cleverness and violence. When the former Wife No. 2 (a commanding Adeola Role) returns as a soldier, hoping to make amends for leaving, she is clad in a hot pink tank top, studded jeans, and military boots. Wife No. 2 is also toting an impressive AK-47. She exudes unfaltering confidence and struts through the hut with a heavy sack of rice over her shoulder, flaunting her biceps and her swagger. No. 2 represents a future for the captive wives: Do they even dare to escape and join her?
“Eclipsed” centers around the young Girl (the talented Ayesha Jordan), as she makes the decision to transition from an innocent child to a desensitized rebel soldier. In the role originated by Lupita Nyong’o, Jordan shows us how Girl grows, moment by moment. She carries her body with uncertainty as a young captive. Like an awkward child, her shoulders slump forward, her knees curve inward, and her eyes wander with a burning curiosity. Girl tries to absorb the reality of women in war, struggling to make the right decisions to survive.
When she chooses to join the rebel army, her persona shifts drastically. In her haunting and emphatic monologue, the Girl recounts a young girl’s gang rape and murder. Her terrible story is the most powerful moment of the show. She thrusts the brutality of the war in our faces.
For those who have been attending women’s marches and keeping up with the rising resistance against Trump in the Bay Area, “Eclipsed” is a must-see. It is the kind of play we need right now. “Eclipsed” is a rare all-black, all-woman production. Playwright Gurira tells the empowering story of women fighting against patriarchal and tribal rules for their own sexual, personal liberation. Does their isolation resemble what women are facing in the U.S., as well?
Women are still being enslaved, raped, kidnapped—stripped of their basic human rights. “Eclipsed” reminds us that, while we are marching and standing up for equal pay and control of female reproductive rights in the U.S., we are also marching for the thousands of women all over the world who are facing intolerable and inhuman exploitation.
“Eclipsed” by Danai Gurira, directed by Leisl Tommy, at The Curran Theater, San Francisco, through Sunday, March 19, 2017. Info: curran-theater/eclipsed
Cast: Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Akosua Busia, Ayesha Jordan, Adeola Role, and Stacey Sargeant.
For more plays, check Theatrius: Now Playing.