A Review of Danai Gurira’s powerful play Eclipsed
By Ashley Smiley
On Sunday, March 12th, I witnessed a matinee performance of Eclipsed at the newly renovated Curran Theater in San Francisco. Upon entering the theater, audience members are given a thorough and informative program and there is a screen that traces Liberia’s history which is an amazing point of entry as the play is set during the 2003 Liberian Civil War.
The set, which assisted in telling us where we are and when, looked extremely simple, modest, and almost out of place surrounded by the Curran’s grandiose chandelier and lavish tapestry work. It was already making a statement, that this was a story, a time, and a place outside of our mainstream conversations; it will crack the rose colored glasses of privilege that we Americans so casually leave unchecked while countries, people, are dying, are being silenced, are being raped…
Written after seeing a picture/learning the story of Black Diamond, a female colonel of Liberian rebel soldiers, Liberian-raised Danai Gurira wrote Eclipsed, which is notably the first work conceived and staged by an entirely Black and female team of director, producers, playwright and actors. Danai Gurira and director Liesl Tommy create a world that completely envelops the audience through costumes, set, sound, and lights. Through these elements we are placed directly in a Liberian rebel camp where we meet five women, four captive wives of the Commanding Officer (often referred to as the C.O.) played by Stacey Sargeant (Wife #1), Adeola Role (Wife #2), Joniece Abbott-Prost (Wife #3) and Ayesha Jordan (The Girl/Wife #4), and a member of the Liberian Women Freedom Initiative, Rita (played by Akosua Busia). Each of the women we meet reveals to us not only the effects of war on a country, but what happens to women, especially Black women, in a time of unrest: rape, assault, loss of identity, the normalization of repeated trauma as a coping mechanism, to name a few.
It made me reflect on how often people say Black women are “so strong,” never realizing why we must be that way. We are not strong, and resilient, and adaptable because we want to be, but because we have to be. We are these things because time and time again, whether in Liberia, or Rwanda, or the U.S. we are constantly placed in positions where we must shift our own morals and values in relation to ourselves, where we must compromise our own self worth, for safety.
During a conversation with Rita, Wife #1 states “I do not know myself outside of war, I do not get to think about things like that” and it broke my entire heart, because I have heard Black women in my own family say almost the exact same thing when speaking of their experiences. The Black Woman is so often caught in a cycle of trauma that we lose ourselves, we cannot see ourselves beyond the situation we are placed in, forced to live and change in the “right now”, we do not have the privilege of thinking about our future which can very well lead us to perpetuate the cycle of violence done unto us, turning victim into victimizer as a means for survival. Each woman has a different way in which they reclaim their own power, create an identity that they can live with, just enough to not fall apart.
We are introduced to Wife #1 braiding Wife #3’s hair into cornrows. They are talking and chatting and while the non-Black audience members could laugh at many of the jokes, the entire picture of a Black woman seated between the knees of another Black woman and getting her hair braided resonated on a different level. It was the first of many images that acted as bridge between the African woman’s experience and the Black woman’s experience — a testament to our connected history. Wife #1 asks Wife #3 about the movie she saw and she tells the story of an African prince who goes to America to find a wife. The movie she is referring to, though it is never named, is Eddie Murphy’s iconic film Coming to America in which he is the prince of Zamunda, a fictional country in Africa, who is unsatisfied with the woman his parents arranged for him so he decides to travel to America to find a partner. Wife #1 scoffs at the film suggesting that Eddie Murphy’s character could have just found another woman in Africa. There was no need for him to go to America to find someone, and Wife #3 responds by saying it’s fine… It’s just a movie. But the critique is valid, and it is one that even American Black women have when it comes to Black men.
Suddenly, without warning or pause, the two women jump up and stand in a line, the energy has completely shifted even though the antagonist is not physically present, the women watch as this invisible, oppressive force passes by, and then, in an instant they were back to laughing, back to braiding hair. It was so natural. So casual. Again my heart felt broken. From underneath a tub another woman emerges; she is The Girl. It is slowly revealed that the two wives have been hiding The Girl to try and protect her from the other soldiers and their “husband”, the C.O.
Throughout the beginning of Act 1, the audience sees the three women living what seems to be a completely natural life. They are cooking, talking, communing, no one ever says “war” or “rape” or “guns”, the audience can easily forget that there is a war going on at all, even C.O. just starts to sound like a name, not a ranking. The C.O. comes back often, it is a ritual, a ceremony, they hear him approach, they hide The Girl, they stand in a line together in front of the tub where The Girl is hiding, one of them will point to themselves, a silent question of “me?”, they receive confirmation, one leaves, the other goes back to living and unhides The Girl, and eventually the Wife that had to leave comes back, washes between her legs, using a communal towel, in a tub of who knows how dirty water, out, in the open, and then falls back into everyday life. In a moment we watch women attempt to normalize their trauma and bondage and trauma repeatedly be reminded of the loss of their own autonomy. Now, even privacy, modesty, respect, humanity is a privilege. And we see it over and over and over again. And eventually, it becomes natural to us too. We too are aware of the cycle and move within it.
What makes this point even clearer is the invisible yet palpable presence of male oppression. Not only in the mentioning and actions of the never seen but ever present C.O., but on a grander scale, the manifestations of rape culture, patriarchy, and misogyny coupled with the dehumanization that comes with war places the Black female body in a position of ultimate oppression as her safety and survival will seemingly always revolve around a man and/or be influenced by the decisions of one. It is shown repeatedly that the best the women can do for their own mental health is change the language they use when referring to their interactions with men, something so often seen in victims of rape/sexual assault and sex trafficking — a false use of something positive to cover up the negative.
Naming your trauma and naming your place in your trauma as both victim and survivor is key to being able to move forward. Rita asks each woman on different occasions “what is your name? What is the name your mother and father gave you?” For each woman this question holds a different meaning that ultimately defines their decision at the end of the play.
Eclipsed is a must see production. Not only because of its barrier breaking team but also because it highlights so many things that affect women and especially Black women across the African Diaspora on a daily basis. It commands us to not only call out rapists and perpetrators of sexual assault but also work towards ending the normalization of this behavior, to end what we now so casually refer to as “rape culture”. It is a call to work fervently to end sex trafficking. It is a charge to pay close attention to the true cost of war. Not the dollar signs and bombs, but what is happening to the individuals in these areas, especially the women and children. Lastly, I saw it as a responsibility to understand that being Black in America is to be under attack, all of the time, by both visible and invisible forces. It is a war of its own and this war also has victims, internalizing and normalizing their trauma. Black women are suffering right here, in the same ways, with very little assistance becoming the names the world has given to them, and losing themselves in the process.
Eclipsed continues at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco through Sunday, March 19. Ticket information here.
Written by playwright Danai Gurira (star of AMC’s “The Walking Dead”) and directed by Liesl Tommy Eclipsed, it had a sold-out run at The Public Theater and then transferred to Broadway where it was nominated for six Tony Awards including Best Play.
Ashley Smiley has a Bachelors Degree in Performing Arts and Social Justice and a Masters in Drama. She aims to uplift the voices of and provide space for work by Women, People of Color, Women of Color, and in particular Black women focusing on the themes of social justice, compassion, empathy, and history. She previously reviewed The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution for EatDrinkFilm.
Eclipsed photos by Little Fang Photography
Read the Vogue interview with playwright Danai Gurira.
The creative team for the Broadway production of Eclipsed.
Interview with director Liesl Tommy at the Curran
Danny Glover spoke at the Curran’s ECLIPSED student matinee on March 15th for a powerful post-show dedication to kidnapped and missing girls from the school in Chibok, Northern Nigeria, infamously taken by the Boko Haram years prior—and many of whom are missing to this day.
The Curran has helped bring 10,000 girls to Eclipsed as part of the show’s initiative to bring under-served young women (who may have never experienced a professional live theatrical production), to see Eclipsed. The girls, ages 16 to 24, will be given tickets to see this empowering and important play. More information on the 10,000 girl campaign can be found here: Tenthousandgirls.com.