Howard University presented the powerful new play, Eclipsed, in their black box theater this past weekend. Eclipsed was written in 2015 by Danai Gurira (well-known for her role as Michonne on AMC’s The Walking Dead) and premiered on Broadway in March of 2016. The story follows five women, shut up in a one room shack in Liberia in 2003. Inspired by a photo of the female Liberian freedom fighter, Black Diamond, Gurira traveled to Liberia and spoke to over 30 women who had been raped, turned into rebel fighters or sex slaves, or had become peace activists during the fourteen-year civil war. Using these women’s stories, Gurira created a play that shows the horrific conditions these women lived in and the atrocities they endured; How they each got by in their own way, sacrificing important aspects of their individuality in order to survive; And what was left of their spirit, and humanity, once the fighting was over.
Howard University’s black box theater in their Environmental Theatre Space is the perfect space for this piece, which takes place almost entirely in one room of a rebel army camp. The place is dirty and bare, simply and effectively designed by G.V. Love, with an overturned metal washtub and several blankets strewn about for bedding. Director Alric Davis does an incredible job utilizing the small space and, with the help of Fallon William’s lighting design, depicts the sharp mood spikes and drops of the scenes as the women fluctuate between trying to live as if theirs is a normal life and dealing with the realities surrounding them.
The characters in Eclipsed are named from several of the women Gurira met in her research. Four of those women are wives of the same Commanding Officer, who is never seen and is only ever referred to as CO. As the play begins, there are only three women, #1 (Helena, played by Camille Capers), #3 (Bessie, played by Breana Thomas), and The Girl (played by Deidre Staples), and it soon becomes clear that #1 and 3 are hiding The Girl from the CO, who they know will take her and make her another one of his wives.
#1 is the leader and motherly one of the group; she is the CO’s first wife. Capers plays #1 with a sense of responsibility to take care of the other women but also is constantly carrying an overwhelming feeling of sadness and loss. The Girl is only 15 and recently separated from her parents. #1 hides her underneath the metal tub whenever they hear the door start to creak open. Staples, as The Girl, is full of sweetness and innocence. She is not naïve about the effects of the war, but confronts anything unpleasant with defiance and a refusal to crumble. The women have incredible darkness in their past but Thomas’ #3 always manages to find the sassiness in any situation. She is scrappy and full of attitude but is also capable of incredible kindness. Thomas is constantly the comic relief in the otherwise emotionally heavy play, but she is still a very real character. Thomas’ ability to create humor amid the tension is a combination of impeccable timing and Gurira’s brilliantly developed character.
#3 is also pregnant (much to her distaste) by the CO, which brings up the first of several contradictions that these women deal with. #3 is worried that the pregnancy will make her fat and undesirable so that the CO won’t want her anymore, which goes against the idea of her as a sex slave, but Thomas clearly conveys the internal conflict of an abused woman who develops a twisted sense of devotion and even affection for her abuser.
The Girl, sick of cowering under a wash tub, reveals herself to the CO and becomes his #4. This, of course, creates jealousy and tension among the women, who battle back and forth with each other and themselves trying to find the balance of humanity, sanity, and self-preservation in an impossible circumstance.
Through conversations about the pecking order of the wives, we learn that there was a second wife who hasn’t been seen or heard from. #2 is talked about as a wild and not to be trusted woman. But she soon returns, bringing rice as a gift to her former fellow wives.
Niangane is #2, who has become a freedom fighter, and she is intense and intimidating. She carries a gun and walks around with a power and presence that further accentuates the diminished spirit of the other woman. #2 takes a liking to The Girl and tries to convince her to become a freedom fighter too. She argues that the men can’t rape you, when you’re holding a gun.
This becomes another gut-wrenching choice to be made that tests morals vs survival. Staples (The Girl) and Niangane have a strong connection and a similarity in their refusal to show fear, but being a freedom fighter is more than just fighting and Staples must decide if she is willing to round up other girls to become sex slaves so that she doesn’t have to be. As #2 asks her, ‘would you rather it be you?”
Coming to try to negotiate peace for the war and freedom for the women, is Rita, played by Ashley Cruel. She was a successful business woman, who thought that her money and position would protect her family but, when daughter was taken from her, Rita refocuses her efforts and becomes a peace advocate. Cruel is more polished than the other women, which creates distrust which needs to be overcome, but she shows genuine compassion and shared pain for what these women have been living through.
The story of these women is hard to watch but impossible to ignore. They each have dealt with the violence and inhumanity in their own way. Some are disgusted with others, and some with themselves, but every one of them is surviving as best they can.
Howard University’s Department of Theatre Arts did a tremendous job with a very difficult piece of work. Gurira has created a play that touches on the brutality of war, sisterhood, sacrifice, and basic survival, and this cast makes the work their own. Eclipsed is a beautiful piece of theatre that brings laughter through tears and hope through horror.
Congratulations to the cast and crew for creating this thought-provoking production that illustrates the damaging effects of war on individuals, families, and the very idea of humanity.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.
Eclipsed played through Sunday, February 12, 2017, at Howard University’s Department of Theatre Arts performing at the Environmental Theatre Space – 2455 6th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets to upcoming productions, purchase them online.