Even in the best of times, Liberia is a pretty forlorn place. Because the country was never a colony as were most areas of the African continent, there’s never been much of an infrastructure. The language spoken today is a pastiche of Pidgin English, nineteenth-century Southern American drawl (originally spoken by the African-Americans who formed the country in 1847), plus the local dialects. To the uninformed ear, this “English” often sounds unintelligible. Words and phrases pass by as we hear them—a major challenge for any writer attempting to depict life in this rather grim place.
Eclipsed, by Danai Gurira (a Zimbabwean who has also lived in Liberia), succeeds in the face of these language obstacles, plus the addition of another major hurdle: Liberia’s recent civil war. The play is truly astonishing because of its use of Liberian English and the writer’s determination to demonstrate moments of dignity and hope in a situation as grim as one is ever likely to encounter on the stage. Even in normal times, the options for most women in Liberia are somewhere near the bottom of the heap of all the troubled countries in the world. To encounter four women in such a hopeless setting is not the kind of experience many people look forward to when they spend a night at the theater.
The world premier of Danai Gurira’s play opened the thirtieth season of Washington’s Woolley Mammoth theater known for its cutting edge choices of new dramas, frequently of unflinching candor. Gurira herself has been celebrated for her award-winning earlier play about AIDS in Africa, In the Continuum, which won an Obi in 2006. After its current run at Woolly Mammoth (which ends September 27th), Eclipsed will be produced in other regional theaters across the country. If you can’t catch it in Washington, don’t miss it somewhere else. This important play is certain to garner a number of awards once it becomes more widely-known.
The lives of four women (the “wives” of a Liberian rebel officer) are not only eclipsed by the war itself but also by their gender. As in many African polygamous arrangements, there’s a pecking order among the women. More frequently than not they refer to one another by number rather than by name, further effacing their identities. The setting is a remote area of the country, the dilapidated compound of an abandoned home with a partial overhanging roof: an open space, which includes a crude cooking area, a couple of mattress less beds, and a bench or two. The year is 2003, when Liberia’s ruthless dictator, Charles Taylor, is threatened by rebel troops. These four women are here solely to service the Commanding Officer, known as CO. They cook his meals and are periodically called by him to satisfy his sexual urges. His power is total, represented by his off-stage presence only.
Gurira focuses her story on her character’s minimal options. Mostly, that means survival. The oldest woman, hardly more than twenty-five, has been with the CO for ten years, during which time she lost a child as well as her capacity to have another. Number Three is younger and prettier, but–when the play opens–five or six months pregnant. At the beginning of the play, Number Four is sheltered by the others—hiding much of the time under a large overturned tub until the CO discovers her and rapes her as he has the others. But the situation for these women could be even worse. The CO more or less protects them so that they are not gang-raped by the marauding soldiers who pour across the country. Number Two has run off and joined the rebels as a gun-toting soldier in order to save herself. But the trade-off for her is that, in order to survive, she must supply young girls to the rampaging soldiers. There’s a fifth woman, a Liberian peace worker, who arrives mid-way through the action and changes the perspectives of the four “wives.”
The ensemble work of these five women is often breathtaking, their personalities as different as they could be—an incredible fact given their dire situation. Liesl Tommy’s direction is brilliant in part because of a includes a surprising number of comic moments as well as powerful incidents that demonstrate the core–but also buried humanity–of the characters. Because of a tattered copy of a book that shows up among the spoils of the war that the CO gives to his women as “rewards” and the fact that Number Four alone has basic literacy, there’s running comic relief involving Bill Clinton.
War has rarely been depicted on stage with so many indirect consequences. Apprehensive of the time when the war may end, Number One states, “I no know who I is out of war.” Number Two asserts her belief that for her own survival she must “work with the system, the system of war.” When asked what she wants more than anything else, Number Four says pink nail polish, a pathetic indicator of all these women’s limited expectations. Number Three, however, who initially wants to give her baby away, changes her perspective after the child is born:
“I like ha. I did not tink I woz go like ha, but I do. She no look like him, she a small small me! How I no gon love ha? I look at ha, and she look at me wit dos eyes and all dat stuff coming out ha mout after she drink milk and I say, If any body do sometin to my chile, ever—dat de only ting dat gon mek me pick up de gun and fire you den I curse you, curse you to de devil. Dat when I gon go to de medicine man for true and get some o de juju dat go hurt someone, dey go wake up with no privates or somethin. Dey go fire dey self—dey be so vex. I never felt a love like dat, you know. I kill and curse for ha. And I tink God will be on my side. I sure of dat. How you? You should get beby, it feel good.”
Eclipsed will leave you shattered but grateful for your own life. The real victims of war in Africa today are women (and children), their situations often hopeless. Think of what’s going on in the Sudan or the Congo or any of the places where ethnic cleansings have being going on for years. The Woolly Mammoth production is still a little rough, particularly with the time transitions from scene to scene that are entirely clear in the printed text of the play. But the raw material and the energy depicted in the lives of Danai Gurira’s characters all point in one clear direction: the making of a major African playwright.
86 pp., $10.00
CHARLES R. LARSON, CounterPunch’s Fiction Critic, is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.