At what point does the abominable become mundane? At what point is a woman raped so much that she can shrug it off? At what point does she become so immune to violence against herself that she can turn around and become the perpetrator, the pimp and the executioner? And at what point does our isolation and ignorance of these events make us culpable?
These are pretty hard core questions. You wouldn’t expect it to be actually enjoyable to plumb these depths. But Woolly Mammoth’s production of “Eclipsed” succeeds.
Playwright Danai Gurira is a Zimbabwean-American whose interviews with Liberian women who had fought and survived its brutal civil war provide the intense realism of the play. It’s this informed backbone that drives the action beyond the sentimentalism that can poison pieces on women in war, and director Liesl Tommy finds the humor in those ugly depths as well, avoiding any pity party.
Five very different women – three tied to a warlord’s camp, a rebel soldier, and a peace negotiator – all share a common trait. Despite the horror of their lives, they adapt with a tenacious survival instinct. The audience is given a full first act to adapt with them, before Gurira slowly shatters the illusion in the second. No violence is shown onstage, but when the monologue comes detailing the full carnage of our own brutality to others, it is a knockout.
I think the impact of this play is best felt by not knowing many plot details going in. Just know that it’s about Liberia’s civil war, from the viewpoint of women with a very limited sphere of knowlege about their own situation. Let the play take you on a journey to a world few Americans really understand – or sadly, want to understand.
The accents are well done, and it takes just a few minutes to acclimate. The performances are rock solid. I didn’t even recognize Jessica Frances Dukes, so completely did she inhabit the rebel Maima. The tension of her time bomb character is electric. As the head wife, Uzo Aduba’s mannerisms read authentic African, while her practical connection to the warlord shows hoe even so-called submissives grab power where they can. Dawn Ursula’s haughty peace negotiator Rita is most startling and honest in the moment when she admits to having put herself and her family in danger to profit from war. We all have that capability.
The heart of the play is the journey of the no-name teenager simply called Girl. Ayesha Ngaujah, all coltish awkwardness and placid face, delivers the pivotal monologue that hits hardest on the horrors of rape during wartime. It unfolds like a documentary you can’t look away from – the conflicting emotions of revenge and regret, the unflinching description all the more awful because you know it is true. Ngaujah has a tough job going on this character’s journey, and she rides the waves in a striking manner.
But my favorite character was the narcissistic Bessie, deftly portrayed by Liz Femi Wilson. Pregnant, vain, and utterly captivating. We all know people like this, who could survive any atrocity – they are the reason humanity still exists. A complicated but necessary evil, Wilson makes her sympathetic and is the one beacon of hope at the end of the play. Life goes on, the atrocious is mundane, but the next generation still needs to be raised.
I remain fascinated by this production after a few days and I wonder how it will be received by audiences. It’s a hard sell to sit through atrocities when most people can’t even bring themselves to watch them on the news, and sadly an even harder sell when the subject is Africa. So I urge you to go see how Woolly has handled it, bring friends, talk about it, think about it.
We are all culpable in some way. So what do we do?
“Eclipsed” at Woolly Mammoth Theatre
Now thru September 27
641 D Street NW
Having spent a month and a half in Liberia, I found this play honest, captivating and mercifully void of melodramaticisms or moral preaching. your review spot on and I agree that Bessie’s character was spot-on. I met someone in Monrovia who could have been her doppelganger in mannerisms, attitude and way of speaking. Some scenes were indeed spine-chilling, particularly the “show your jaw” monologue; I’ve seen footage of a female soldier saying the same words, slapping a young man in the face. They did a great job of exposing the audience to some of the horrors of the past but still leaving us with an uplifted mood at the end of the play. Top notch!