Eclipsed: The Untold Story of the Impact on Women in Liberia’s civil war


Two recent works explaining the impact of war, one cinematic and the other theatrical, brilliantly depict the ravages of war.  Beasts of No Nation, a film, and Eclipsed, a play, show the impact of war on society’s most vulnerable women and children. Both are riveting. They both thematically are similar, but for purposes of this review, Eclipsed takes center stage and eclipses Beasts of No Nation (yes, pun intended). At New York City’s Public Theater, Eclipsed has been playing to sold out crowds for over two months. According to Webster’s Dictionary, eclipsed is to obscure the light from another, to deprive someone or something of significance, power, or prominence.

Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, directed by Liesl Tommy, is the story of the Liberian (Former enslaved African-Americans, some of whom returned to Africa, established the country of Liberia) Civil War, its sexual impact on women and young girls and its impact on girls as youth soldiers. Women were often denied their power and prominence, as captors obscured the women’s light; however, women, often captured by men at whim, held as sexual slaves, and denied significance, prevailed at the end of the war. This play has a compelling African female only ensemble cast that stars Pascale Armand as Bessie, Stacey Sargeant as Helena, Lupita Nyong’o as “the girl”, Zainab Jah as Maima, and Akosua Busia as Rita. In spite of Nyong’o’s star power, each cast member brings life to her own character. This drama is not a feel good play. Yet, there is plenty of comic relief through Helena’s character, but the seriousness of the story allows one to never forget that women are often denied prominence, respect, and honor, and are often denigrated and disparaged during some of history’s most turbulent times.

Used with Courtesy Akosua Busia and Lupita Nyong'o
Used with Courtesy
Akosua Busia and Lupita Nyong’o

In spite of their denigration during the Liberian Civil War, women ended the conflict, and later rose to prominence, electing its first female president, Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf. The women portrayed in this drama at some point take control of their own lives as instruments of peace, truth, and reconciliation.  All of the women of varying ages make decisions to make their capture bearable.

The back story of the play is of an insurgency led by Charles Taylor against Master Sargeant Samuel K. Doe. Through a coup d’etat, Taylor usurps Doe’s presidency and establishes pugnacious tyrannical rule over the country. Taylor is later elected president; however, a rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rally against him. Women become captives, some rally for peace as LURD kidnap women and girls, and some become youth soldiers. Fighting escalates as war ravages the country as groups try to negotiate peace. Women lead the peace accords by refusing to settle for less than peaceful reconciliation and by demanding a voice in their government. This agreement, known as the Accra Accord, was instrumental in Liberia’s election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’as the first female president of an African nation.image

All of the women powerfully portray the devastating effects on women during the Liberian Civil War. Fighting for dominance, the women want to have some semblance of control over their lives. They make difficult choices, allowing themselves to live within their controlled lives. Having often forgotten their prior identity, four of them are known by number and not by name. Nyong’o is only known as the girl, although she is number four in the rotation, but since she is the youngest, her captor expects sex at his request. The others are no longer valuable to him for he has moved on to fresher meat. The intensity of this play increases as two of the characters (Maima and the girl) become soldiers and fight fiercely with the hope of reclaiming their lives. Nothing, however, is as easy as one expects. In the end, the establishment of truth and reconciliation ends the war. The play ends with quiet reflection as “the girl” walks back on stage, surveys the land, and quite possibly wonders about the manifestation of her new life as we envision the juxtaposition of a former life with a new one.

The writing makes this play memorable, but the props, set design and sound design all give the audience a feeling of verisimilitude. We see munitions and hear gun shots, and see nonverbal communications of fear. We feel disdain for the captor and horror for the women through the props as they often wipe themselves after forced sexual intercourse. Moreover, the “home” in which they live conveys a felling of sorrow as the women sleep on the floor surrounded by walls riddled with bullets.

At the curtain call, Stacey Sargeant is visibly emotional, although her role as Helena was the most comical. Her role nevertheless, has great impact. In spite of having a baby with her captor, Helena makes the decision to stay; thus, the play shows, through Helena, the varied decisions that women make that are often difficult to fathom.

Heading to Broadway in January, Eclipsed is a moving tribute to women’s resolve to survive contemptuous circumstances. While moved toward sorrow, one will nevertheless laugh (comic relief) at the comparison of the women’s lives at playing “second fiddle” to that of Hillary Clinton’s life playing second fiddle to Monica Lewinsky. It’s not the typical light-hearted Broadway play, but one will empathize with the women, and feel their strength and determination that a change is going to come.

Also check out Beasts of No Nation. It is difficult to watch, but it paints a picture also of the harsh realities of war. There are no winners.

Review of Twelve Years a Slave

Most of us are familiar with the story of Joseph in the Bible who was sold into slavery by his brothers who were jealous of him because he shared a dream with them that one day they would bow down to him and because his father loved him more than his other brothers.  He suffered greatly at the hands of the slave owners and was ultimately imprisoned for a wrong that he did not commit.  In spite of the challenges he faced during his imprisonment, he did not despair; he remained hopeful that one day he would be rescued.  Upon his rescue, he was reunited with his family, while holding no grudge against his brothers for their previous actions.  At this point that is where the parallels end with “Twelve Years a Slave” , the authentic narrative written by and about Solomon Northup, and the story of Joseph end.  Coincidently, Northup has the wisdom of “Solomon” who desires to go up North back to Saratoga to prove his free status.  He uses wisdom to maneuver through daunting situations.

“Twelve Years a Slave”, a film told partly through flashback, chronicles the tragic abduction and sale of Northup, a free “Negro” from Saratoga, New York , into slavery.  A pre- civil war film, initially  it portrays Northup freely moving about in his community and associating with Caucasians.  By 1824, slavery in New York was illegal and most blacks were free decades before the abduction of Northup in 1841. By 1802 many enslaved were beginning to gain free status in New York. The film, directed by Steve McQueen stars Chiwetal Ejiofor , Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, and Brad Pitt.  Northup, played by Ejiofor, was an erudite, a musician, and an engineer able to engage in esoteric conversations .  He was sold into slavery by two white men with whom he engaged in business. Using the words of Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings, this film is about a “high tech lynching for an uppity Negro.”

This film is about the survival, the resilience, and the ultimate triumph of an enslaved man despite ill-treatment.  The brutality by slave masters, by plantation overseers, and by the wives of the slave masters is depicted in horrid scenes.  This film is not for the weak stomached, but for those who have the wherewithal to sit through over two hours of a harrowing account of one of the most tragic eras in our nation’s history.  While viewing the film, the tension was palpable and the emotion unrestrained as many people shed tears and gasped at scenes.  One woman behind me walked out with about one half hour left in the film.  She said “I can’t take any more.”  Northup encounters severe beatings interspersed with little good treatment, while not fearing in his attempts to reach his family who has no knowledge of either his whereabouts or his current condition. He is courageous, in the face if fear, while exhorting his fellow enslaved to be strong.  This film also juxtaposes two modes of survival against the brutality of slavery.  Alfre Woodard plays the enchanted mistress of the slave master.  She has no qualms about what she is doing because she is served instead of  serving.  She has secured many of the benefits of white women because she willingly succumbed to the sexual demands of the slave master so that all ill- treatment that she heretofore suffered would cease.

The acting, the costume design, and the direction were all of a superb caliber.  Through the costumes, one can see how the free dressed compared with the enslaved.  During slavery, the enslaved often wore shirts made out of flax, a material through which linen is made.  In the film, the material that was used for the clothing of the enslaved was flax.  In Booker T. Washington’s slave narrative, he mentions the uncomfortability of flax. The viewer is also able to see and reflect on the many elements of slavery’s era and it’s impact on the human spirit.  For example, the travail of the enslaved was well captured.  The work in the fields was long and arduous.  Moreover, the acting is exceptional especially concerning the scenes of rampant and perpetual brutality (Including rape). The use of the “N” word was dispersed throughout the film showing the pejoration of the slave masters and the overseers toward the enslaved.  The acting was delivered superbly while remaining authentic to the time period especially concerning the brutal beatings delivered by the slave masters and by the forced delivery of the beatings by the enslaved toward each other. Lastly, the film shows how the faith of the enslaved was used as a means of survival.  They sang Negro spirituals to help ease the pain.  The acting, the costume designing, and the directing were all made possible through the narrative, “Twelve Years a Slave”, beautifully retold through the direction of McQueen Via Northup who was ultimately rescued from slavery through the efforts of a white man, played by Pitt, who became his confidant.

I wholeheartedly recommend this film.  It may not be appropriate for young children under the age of ten, unless they are precocious  and are able to stomach the horrors of extreme brutality and the harrowing effects so slavery.