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Theatre in Review: Eclipsed (The Public Theater)

Pascale Armand, Saycon Sengbloh, Lupita Nyong'o. Photo: Joan Marcus

Considering that it stuffed full of horrors, Eclipsed doesn't rub our faces in gratuitous violence or brutality. That's because the playwright, Danai Gurira, understands that a simple, unsensational statement of the facts is enough to curdle the blood of any audience member who wanders into LuEsther Hall these nights. Eclipsed is set in Liberia in 2003, when the country was torn by civil war against the corrupt dictator Charles Taylor. The first three characters we meet -- Bessie, Helena, and the character known only as The Girl -- are the sex slaves of a rebel army officer known as the CO. They live together in a little hovel, scrounging for food and wood to cook it, and amusing themselves by reading out loud passages from a biography of Bill Clinton that was the spoils of war. They go about their business, sparring amusingly and sharing a laugh or two. Then comes the moment when, responding to an unheard prompt -- there are no men in the play -- they line up and face the entryway. The chosen one leaves, and, a few minutes later, quietly returns, pulls a rag out of a bucket, lifts her skirt, and wipes herself clean. The conversation continues without incident. In its lack of melodrama, it is an utterly harrowing depiction of institutionalized rape.

As the country falls into chaos, the women in Eclipsed have two choices: They can be attached to the army, as in the above paragraph, or they can join the army as soldiers. Horrifyingly, Helena, Bessie, and The Girl, also known as Wife #1, Wife #3, and Wife #4, are thought to have privileged lives; still, The Girl (aka Wife #4), who drifted into her present position, can't tolerate it, especially since she must bear the weight of the CO's demands almost entirely alone. (The CO has tired of Helena, and Bessie is in the last trimester of pregnancy) so when Maima, otherwise known as Wife #2, shows up bearing a rifle, she finds in The Girl a willing army recruit.

A report from a world so desolate that it is almost impossible to grasp, Eclipsed delivers with ramrod force its portrait of women struggling to survive under the most appalling circumstances. It's all the more remarkable, then, that Gurira refuses to see them as merely victims and has created fully rounded characterizations that make it impossible for us to look away, no matter how powerful the urge. By focusing on the daily lives of a handful of characters, she also plausibly gives us a sense of an entire country in chaos, whipsawed by hope and despair. The former comes in the form of Rita, a successful businesswoman who is working with the movement of Liberian women who eventually brokered a cease-fire and transition of power. The latter is embodied by Maima, clad in a Chanel T-shirt and bejeweled blue jeans, sporting sunglasses and threatening to indiscriminately blow of the head off anyone who gets in her way.

Relying entirely on Gurira's text, never resorting to trickery or melodrama, Liesl Tommy's direction brings this unbelievable -- and yet all-too-believable -- situation to soul-rattling life. Lupita Nyong'o, Oscar winner for 12 Years a Slave, is the reason this production is being staged right now, and she easily captures The Girl's faintly opaque quality -- her pretense that all is fine upon returning from yet another brutal sexual episode as well as her obvious joy at being the one literate member of the CO's wives. When she joins the army, her transformation is chilling. ("If I got gun, don' nobody gonna fuck wit' me no more. I wan' dat," she says.) She also provides a devastating reading of The Girl's climactic monologue in which she recounts how one of the young women she captured ending up dying after being raped by five soldiers, expiring while the last of them was still inside her. But her costars also make indelible impressions. Pascale Armand's Bessie amuses when she insists that her hairstyle makes her look like Janet Jackson, but the laughter catches in one's throat as she casually acknowledges that the first time she was raped, "I cried two days." Akosua Busia's strong presence is put to good use as Rita, whether she is daintily putting a handkerchief down on the hut's floor before sitting or berating herself for not getting out of Liberia before her prosperous existence was destroyed. Zainab Jah makes Maima into a remorseless figure of death -- "It best to work wit' de system, and right now -- de system it war," she says. Saycon Sengbloh is a fine maternal figure to the others, even if the ideas she feeds them are so hopelessly twisted. As she assures The Girl, their life is "betta den whot happen to some of de gals out dere, all de soldier get to have dem. Wit us, it just de CO."

The action unfolds on Clint Ramos' set, in which the hut moves up and down stage, facing different angles and disappearing for one crucial sequence. It is a vision of squalor marked by sad little attempts at brightening it up, for example chains made of brightly colored paper. His costumes -- the ladies scrounge their clothing from piles given to them by the CO, who has stolen them from the army's victims -- feel totally authentic. Jen Schriever's lighting is especially effective when blending saturated colors to make vivid sunrise and sunset looks. The sound design, by Broken Chord, effectively blends bits of pop music with terrifyingly immediate explosions and bursts of gunfire.

Many of us frequently read newspaper accounts of the sorts of atrocities depicted in Eclipsed without really taking them in. They are simply too awful to dwell on. This is why Eclipsed is so important: Using artful characterizations, gritty humor, and a brusque, plainspoken manner, Gurira makes us see things that we cannot fully imagine on our own. You can argue whether Eclipsed is a brilliant play or merely a very timely one. It's much harder to argue with the proposition that it is one of the most important plays of the season. -- David Barbour

(20 October 2015)

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