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.
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.
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.