Another day comes, and the war drags on. Insects buzz. Trees sway. Distant rifle shots patter through the heat waves. Inside the compound, sunshine strikes corrugated metal walls, slicked with iridescent chemicals and punched through with bullet holes. One day looks much like the next, until the coming of the orphan. A girl, with a narrow body and shimmering eyes, lost at war.
Five women make up Eclipsed, the world premiere by Danai Gurira set in rural Liberia in 2003. The show opens Woolly Mammoth’s 30th season, and this knockout production is not to be missed. Eclipsed is not only deeply engrossing theater; it is a significant moment in 21st-century playwriting, and an exciting new foundation for women artists on the modern stage.
The girl (Ayesha Ngaujah) is immediately hidden away by Helena (Uzo Aduba) and Bessie (Liz Femi Wilson), two captive wives of a Commanding Officer in the LURD rebel militia. Helena and Bessie are spooked by the girl’s mysterious arrival, and their opening arguments crackle with urgency. Bessie is a fidgety, wild-mouthed hothead. Helena is more guarded, her motherly care blossoming out of a tender personal past. Together they are caretakers, confidantes, sisters, mothers, and daughters. They are a community on the fringes of destruction, a family-in-training born out of the simple presence of war in every direction.
The plot of Eclipsed is simple, driven on the small scale by the ongoing struggle over friendship, rivalry, and enmity in the camp. Helena, once the CO’s favorite wife, finds reason to doubt the importance of her role. Bessie’s increasing pregnancy begins to sour her love for high-heeled shoes and Janet Jackson wigs. And most visibly changed of all is the anonymous girl, who begins scooping up the ingredients of adulthood as best she can, forging a future for herself as a remarkably brave and conflicted young woman.
For in this world, girls must quickly grow up. Tension stirs the air as the wives care for the girl, keeping her away from the eyes of the Commanding Officer and out of the grasp of Maima (Jessica Frances Dukes), a voracious militia soldier who once lived among them in the wives’ quarters, and who soon returns to mark her territory.
With a deft touch, the production draws attention to the rough-hewn edges of our understandings, and to how vividly our fears come alive one step outside our places of comfort. For all that the women have made a home for themselves, the dark corners still threaten. More than once, the militant Maima emerges out of the forest into the light of the compound, only to slink back to the shadows after an unsettling exchange. These wavering edges of safety, charged with danger and the unknown, are what have kept Helena and Bessie under the Commanding Officer’s control all this time. When cruelty is synonymous with the familiar, it becomes possible to feel at home in unlikely places.
The design team’s heartfelt collaboration is clear from all angles. The ramshackle army camp plays as both prison and sanctuary, islanded as it is within a forest teeming with bloodshed, and set designer Daniel Ettinger provides for myriad nooks and crannies that evoke both places of safety and places of entrapment. Kathleen Geldard’s colorful costumes are vibrant and help to define the shapes and contours of the character’s personalities.
The steamy, sylvan lighting design by Colin K. Bills teams wonderfully with Veronika Vorel’s layered forest soundtrack, which often plays for many minutes at a time under the action. At the helm is director Leisl Tommy, who has successfully captured the drastic stakes of life during wartime in her cast’s committed performances.
Founded by the American Colonization Society in the mid-nineteenth century, Liberia was envisioned as a country cultivating freedom. Liberty beats at the heart of the nation’s very name. But nothing is simple. Playwright Gurira has clearly been doing her homework, and her research trips through Liberia in 2007 have allowed her to pen a sharp, emotionally intelligent script about the nation’s unseen heroines.
Of particular importance are the volunteers of the Liberian Woman’s Initiative, who began congregating in 1994 amid deep-seated ethnic strife, and have since organized marches, demonstrations, and proactive civil work including peace talks and in-house diplomacy across the country. They were in no small way enablers of the 2005 national election of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the African continent’s first female head of state. Notions of self-empowerment float in the air of the Eclipsed compound, and the arrival of the well-bred, compassionate peace worker Rita (Dawn Ursula) to the play brings questions of authority and self-worth to the forefront.
Woolly Mammoth is pressing itself this season to engage audiences on a visceral level. So far it’s working. Eclipsed is difficult, perhaps impossible, to ignore. Around the house on Sunday night, heads nodded fervently. Laughs erupted. Sharp intakes of breath punctuated startling and suspenseful moments. It’s a tribute to the ensemble’s natural chemistry and wholehearted communion with each other.
The sound levels are set at strange levels at moments (should the music between scenes really be louder than the gunfire within them?) and it could be argued that the final tableau is a little heavy-handed in its symbolism. But it’s not enough to burst the bubble. Eclipsed is a complicated, painful, and deeply upsetting piece. It’s also a thing of hot blood, strong will, and genuine educational value.
So it is with war. As with love. As with progress.
Written by Danai Gurira, directed by Leisl Tommy
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
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