I saw Eclipsed at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater on March 6th. I usually try to publish my impressions within 48 – 72 hours. But I found it hard to get my thoughts together on this and the time stretched until the coronavirus pandemic canceled the performances…and I decided it wasn’t necessary to write this…but I was wrong…the play continues to echo in my consciousness.
“Eclipsed” is a 21st Century history play, set in the second Liberian Civil War in 2003. And playwright Danai Gurira has divined a very disturbing play from the basest events of that era. It reminds me of a Shakespeare history play a bit. First we have five very carefully limned woman characters who are as unique from one another as they can be. Women who probably would never have met if they hadn’t been caught up in these circumstances that they can’t control. And then their struggle to control those circumstances that they can.
And like Shakespeare, the characters are speaking English, but the Liberian dialect. And it draws you in because you have to concentrate very hard until you grasp the cadence and accent and start to understand what they are saying. It throws you off your game for the first few minutes. But that’s good.
Lights up, we meet two women who are hiding a teenager under a wash tub. Seems like fairly strange behavior to our eyes but they are hiding a teenager from the commander of the rebel forces fighting to overthrow the despotic leader of Liberia. They are wife number one and wife number three of the commander. Women who have been kidnapped and held as slaves to provide the commander with meals, laundry service, housekeeping, and sex. The stress on the women and the teen are apparent and there is some strains in their relationships.
Whether out of anxiety, naivety, or tempting the inevitable, the teen wanders from the compound and is discovered by the commander who forces himself upon her. She is now wife number four. When she returns her voice says it is nothing but her actions belie her words and it is obviously a serious trauma.
Life goes on and there is a clear hierarchy in the compound with wife number one, played by Jacqueline Nwabueze, as the matriarch. Depending on the situation she takes on the role of boss, teacher, mother, confidant, consoler, and liaison to the commander. She also determines who gets to select items from the spoils of war that trickle down to her charges. She has clearly taken to these roles and shifts easily from one to another as required. Ms. Nwabueze makes these shifts in feeling and focus seamless and natural…given it is invisible to the audience indicates how hard she is working!
Wife number three, played by Sola Thompson, is younger and with child…the commanders child. She shifts from showing pride in being popular with the commander to announcing that she does not welcome motherhood. Ms. Thompson shows her growth as the environment shifts…and she has decisions to make for herself.
Wife number four chafes at her role in the compound until a book arrives in the hand me downs. She is the only woman who has an education and can read so she is charged by wife number one with reading to the group. She is played by Matty Sangare…who effortlessly displays the confusion and shifting ideas experienced by wife number four as new situations are thrust upon her.
And then wife number two, played by Ashleigh Awusie, arrives. She has escaped the compound if not the situation by becoming a rebel soldier rather than a concubine. Ms. Awusie’s swagger will be recognizable as a stereotype some of us will read as Che Guevara. She claims that her AK-47 has given her freedom and she uses this sense of freedom to seduce wife number four into joining her in the rebel army. But her claim doesn’t ring true even as she repeats it several times to anyone who will listen. Instead it allows her to express her anger and pretend to avoid the misogyny in the rebel camps. And she has some pretty unkind things to say about the government soldiers. Though she does seem to revel in her role as mentor to wife number four. Ms. Awusie does an amazing job of relaying the underlying doubts and fears that wife number two is feeling despite her declarations of independence and sovereignty in her own life.
And finally, Nancy Moricette is Rita, an activist and peace negotiator who appears in the compound to promote a ceasefire and peace agreement. She apparently is the only woman who the commander is afraid of. And she tries to hold out hope and a promise for the future to all four of the others in the play.
There are a lot of changes in the hierarchy and relationships and personal identities as we watch the events change and progress. And when a peace is finally achieved, we just see the compound dissolve as if it never happened…yet we know that these women will be scarred for life. That ending didn’t quite work for me…but it’s not unlike the Prince of Norway just sorta showing up.
There are five incredible women actors portraying the characters on stage…but there are three male characters as well…although they have no spoken words…and are not represented by actors.
The first of course is the commander who is defined in the conversations of the wives and their actions indicating his off stage presence. And then there is President Charles Taylor, the despotic leader of Liberia who eventually resigns and is driven from the country. Wife number two often exclaimed that the rebels would make him wear a dress before they killed him when they took control of the capitol. And then the subject of the book that wife number four is reading, the big man of America, Bill Clinton. The wives were amused that his taking a number two would cause so many issues for him in America.
Director May Adrales made this play speak to us. She managed to keep the suspense and anxiety and doubts in line and all five actresses in character for a very difficult and changing environment. She has been an instrumental force at the Rep and I look forward to her direction of future plays in Milwaukee.
Two disturbing thoughts kept nagging at me…and they weren’t part of the play…but introduced by the play. Why wasn’t I aware that there were two civil wars in Liberia? And was that my own shortcoming or just America’s disinterest in Africa? And how could we allow this to happen?
I am sorry for the cast and audiences who didn’t get to complete this run because of the COVID-19 closures. The actual shortened run was March 3 – 12, 2020 in the Quadracci Powerhouse. This would be a worthy candidate to revive in a very near future season.