- Eclipsed by Danai Gurira
The particular vulnerabilities that women face during war, most especially the use of rape as a weapon of mass destruction, have until relatively recently been mostly ignored in international diplomatic discussions of war. Just as the diplomatic community, including the United Nations, has recognized the importance of considering the impact of war on women, so too has the theatre community. Plays like Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, Chungmi Kim’s Comfort Women, and most recently Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed very specifically center on this topic. This focus on women brings attention to the above-mentioned particularities of the violence that women face during war, and at the same time is perhaps what makes these plays more accessible to the audience whose experiences, for the most part, are far removed from those of the characters onstage.
Eclipsed, which takes place during the Liberian civil war, is almost as female-focused as a play can be; since its production at The Public Theater, it has gone on to be the first production on Broadway written by a woman, directed by a woman, and to star only women (the play features five female characters and no male characters). It is also the first all-black and all-female production on Broadway. The majority of the play’s action focuses on three women who are the sex slaves of an army rebel leader. At the opening of the play we meet Helena, also known as Wife Number One, and Bessie (Wife Number Three), who have been the captives and “wives” of the commanding officer for so long that they do not remember their ages nor much else about their lives before they became sex slaves. Hiding underneath a tub is The Girl, whom the women have found and are trying to keep hidden from the commanding officer. However, it does not take long for her to be discovered and soon she is also one of his slaves. The main conflict of the play centers around The Girl, Maima (who used to be a sex slave of the commanding officer, but has escaped this position by joining the rebels), and Rita (a peacekeeper who bravely travels from rebel camp to rebel camp searching for her daughter). Maima, who has arrived in the hut to deliver provisions to the other wives, wants The Girl to join her as a rebel fighter, and Rita tries to convince her that education and fighting for peace is the best option. In these five characters, Gurira has created smart, funny, and fiercely strong women whose lives (with the exception of Maima) mostly exist independent of men. But the war, which at least in the play is undeniably the creation of men, completely controls these women’s lives.
All but one scene of the play take place in their small hut establishing a domestic-like quality to the play; but these women’s domesticity is a forced reality—we cannot forget that. Occasionally, the women nod in the direction of offstage officers who summon the women to have sex with the commanding officer, but neither he nor any other man ever appears onstage. This lack of men keeps the story focused on the women’s lives, but it also demonstrates the impact of these men’s power; they do not need to be seen in order for their devastating impact to be felt. While we are drawn into the more accessible elements of the women’s lives (for instance, they do one another’s hair, gossip, listen to the radio, fight with one another, and so on), we are always aware that the commanding officer is nearby and that his presence is dangerous.
Throughout the play there are winks and nods to the connection between these women and audience members in the United States. One of the more humorous plotlines is the women’s fascination with a Bill Clinton biography that The Girl (the only one among them who can read) reads aloud for her companions. Their musings about Clinton and Monica Lewinsky (whom...