NEW YORK—There are no real winners in war, only survivors. Playwright Danai Gurira makes this point crystal clear in her initially quiet, yet ultimately riveting play “Eclipsed,” now at Broadway’s Golden Theatre.
Liberia, 2003: A country on the African coast has been torn apart by two bloody civil wars stretching back more than a decade. Two women are virtual prisoners in a rebel compound: the elder, Helena (Saycon Sengbloh), designated as “Wife #1,” and a rather pregnant Bessie (Pascale Armand), “Wife #3.” Both were captured during attacks on their respective villages.
The two are the unofficial “wives” of the camp commander. They cook, clean, and do other menial chores, but also provide sexual services to the commander, and thus are under his protection from others in the camp. At least as long as they obey his rules.
Helena and Bessie are hiding a young woman, known simply as “The Girl” (Lupita Nyong’o), who just appeared one day, lost and hungry. However, she is soon discovered, and the commander claims her as “Wife #4.”
The wives’ numbers are a way of designating their seniority. Helena is the de facto ruler of the house. Her position allows her to assign chores to each of the women, as well as have first pick of whatever goods the rebels bring from their raids: clothes, combs, makeup, and so on.
Helena’s current pastime is reading aloud from a book about the scandal involving U.S. President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. The women’s perceptions about that incident and how they translate it into their own culture show a universal parallel to the trappings of power.
With escape virtually impossible (there is nowhere to go even if one could get out of the compound), there is only way to change their situation. Other than by dying, they may pick up a gun and go fight with the rebels.
This choice is the path “Wife #2” Maima (Zainab Jah) chose, and which The Girl is seriously considering in order to escape her new existence as the commander’s favorite.
Despite The Girl’s loudly stated proclamations that she would not kill indiscriminately and never harm innocents, she soon finds herself doing just that. After a village firefight, Maima orders her to round up all the young girls to take back as “companions” for the various rebel officers. Thus The Girl ends up helping perpetuate a cycle she is trying to break for herself.
“Eclipsed” shows the effect of war on the innocents caught in its crossfire. The original reasons for the wars have been eclipsed by the need for both sides to maintain their particular status quo. The government uses force to keep itself in power; the rebels train their recruits to become virtual automatons so they don’t question their orders—all under the guise of patriotism.
The ends, in the superiors’ minds, clearly justify the means. This point is powerfully brought home when The Girl is made to regurgitate the rebel mantra she has been forced to learn. Both The Girl and Maima at points recite the mantra with almost no inflection in their speech and seemingly without any understanding of the words’ actual meaning.
Gurira puts a human face on these different women. The characters each serve as a symbol, standing in for untold millions who have been affected by war over the centuries.
Nyong’o’s performance as The Girl is particularly striking as her character goes from an innocent to a captive to a soldier, losing bits of her humanity each step of the way.
Jah’s portrayal of Maima presents a sort of endgame to the process of The Girl’s transformation. She shows the person The Girl could eventually become.
Sengbloh gives a quiet dignity to Helena, who has been a captive for so long she can’t imagine any other way of life. She expects some ultimate recognition for her status, despite the reality of her being just another replaceable tool.
Armand gives a girlish appeal to Bessie with a young woman’s obsession toward her hair. Her pregnancy indicates that the next generation will be born into both slavery and poverty unless something is done.
Rounding out the cast is Rita (Akosua Busia), “part of a large network of women peacemakers.” She takes on this role after feeling the sting of war firsthand, having previously been a businesswoman and a would-be war profiteer. Her current position, despite its altruistic goals, is her way to atone for past sins.
“Eclipsed” is more than an indictment against violence and the collateral damage that inevitably springs up in its wake. The play clearly shows that for a lasting peace to come, it must offer more than simply the laying down of arms.
Rather, society itself must change. Because for many, weapons of force are status symbols and aphrodisiacs. These give both power and respect to those who had never had either before, and walking away from them is not easy to do.
John Golden Theatre
252 W. 45th St.
Tickets: 212-239-6200, or Telecharge.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (one intermission)
Closes: June 19
Judd Hollander is a member of the Drama Desk and reviewer for StageBuzz.com