Get Real with Carla Stockton
“The villainy you teach me I will execute – and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”
– Merchant of Venice
As any woman can tell you, every day it’s survival of the fittest out there in the world, dog-eat-dog. Constantly clawing our way out of danger, wresting our self-esteem from oblivion. Being a woman is tough. In order to succeed on any level, we must all be held hostage, in one way or another, to our society, and we must learn to use our wiles to out-man the men who govern it.
And yet, we have it made here the US of A. It is almost unimaginable what it would require of us to be Liberian women, held captive in the restless milieu of a violent society. How impossible it must seem even to them, to the women who endure those worlds, women who are forced to live as chattel, to remain in their men’s shadows, seeking ways to shape-shift in order to worm their ways into the sunlight where they might be seen as human beings.
Almost unimaginable. But not quite. Thanks to the tour de force of the ensemble of women who have brought ECLIPSED to the stage, where they reclaim their lives and make them ours as well.
Now playing at the John Golden Theater on 45th Street, Eclipsed is a play about women, written and directed by women. There is not a single man in cast, and only two of the eight producers listed in the Playbill are male. Folks, this is at least as revolutionary as Hamilton!
Eclipsed examines the way women relate to one another and fail to relate to one another, by stranding them in a place and time no one would ever choose as a life experience. The program has actor Lupita Nyong’o’s photo on the cover, and she is listed on the marquee above the title, beneath which Danai Gurira is also emblazoned. Both are recognizable names, one for having won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in 12 Years a Slave and the other for her featured role in Walking Dead. Both names are exploited here, to draw the audiences in.
But what holds us there, what keeps our bums riveted to our seats is the compelling ensemble of women whose brilliant acting draws us into this nightmare story. It is written evocatively and with surprising humor by Danai Gurira and flawlessly directed by Liesl Tommy. This is a total theater experience that enables us to easily suspend our disbelief, making us painfully aware that up there on the stage, behind the fourth wall that protects us from the horrors the characters cannot escape, is a slice of real life, and we cannot look away.
Set in 2003, toward the end of Liberia’s second civil war, as rebels grow tired of fighting to oust the seemingly invincible Charles Taylor, the play follows the evolution of Nyong’o’s character, designated in the program simply as The Girl.
At rise, The Girl is a lost teenager, who has stumbled into a rebels’ compound, into the heart of the Commanding Officer’s small harem. C.O., as he is called, is never seen, but his presence is larger than life, and whenever he is near, the women he confines to the miserable metal hut they call home tremble with fear.
Present in the hut when The Girl arrives are Helena and Bessie, who refer to themselves and to one another as Wife #1 (Saycon Sengbloh) and Wife #3 (Pascale Armand). C.O. doesn’t immediately know that the girl is there; his “wives” protect her, keeping her under a plastic tub where he is unlikely to look, where she will remain safe from his marauding sexual appetites. But one night, when she can’t wait till morning to relieve her bladder, she goes to the latrine, where he discovers her, rapes her, and dubs her “# 4, ” dispassionately adding her to the hierarchy of his accumulated women. Soon thereafter, she meets for the first time Wife #2 (Zainab Jah), who left before #3’s arrival but retains her seniority in the other wives’ eyes. #2 has escaped C.O. by joining the rebels and transforming herself into a fierce fighter, whose come-hither clothing belies the venom in her belly, represented by the omnipresent rifle swinging from her shoulder.
The women of the harem are divided in their treatment of and attitude toward #4. #1, the consummate Mother figure, wants to protect #4, to preserve the vestiges of the girl’s innocence. Self-absorbed #3 wants to subvert her, to prevent #4 from usurping #3’s position as C.O’s favorite, a position that comes with the right to reap the fruits of his raids on local villages. More observant and more predatory than the others, #2 recognizes a desperation in the girl’s demeanor and soon recruits the girl to the ranks of the rebel forces. By Act II, #4 has become a lean, mean fighting machine, capable of the same acts of violence that robbed her of her home and family. She has not lost her conscience, however, and her acts of terrorism so disturb her that Disgruntled dubs her Mother’s Blessing chastising her for her overriding need to weep for the victims necessarily sacrificed to the bloody debauchery of the rebel cause.
A fifth woman enters the scene. Rita (Akosua Busia), an official with the Woman’s Council for Peace, gradually discloses that she is hoping that the girl, whom she continuously fails to meet, is her daughter. She claims that her mission is to protect the women, to lead them to safety. “The war will end soon,” she says often enough to convince us she is not convinced. “I will take you to where you can be safe, where you can be yourself.”
It is through Rita that a thread connects the characters’ lives to women outside of war. She asks each of the captives, “What’s your name? Not what he call you. The name your Ma give you.” She recognizes how much has been stripped away from each of these painfully young old souls, and she wants to connect them to their own centers, to reestablish their sense of self-ownership, their confidence and hope.
What’s your name? She asks #1. “The one your family give you.”
“I don’t remember,” wails #1, the 25-year-old mater familias. Nor does she want to remember; it is easier to endure what she has to endure without the temporary, unreliable soporific of memory.
The women have become subservient to their master in all ways. Whenever he stands in close proximity to the hut, we sense him there as the women freeze at attention, shudder, and acknowledge which of them is summoned to pleasure him; as each one returns from being used, we recognize his evil as she wipes away his violation with a shared washcloth they keep in the communal basin.
The women retain their individual wills in small ways. “I don’t know if dey know why dey fightin’,’” #1 admits, but she prides herself on being the one C.O. trusts most, the one in whom he confides, the one he expects to prepare his meals and listen to his complaints; she is confident that she is the only indispensible woman in the compound, and he will want her with him long after he needs her here in his fortress. Yet she longs to learn to read, to “become somet’in’.”
#3 cares about her looks, wants a better wig, dreads the baby growing inside her, fearing it will rob her of her physical beauty. She whines and throws tantrums and acts like the child she is; when the fighting ends, she hopes to find her way to school, where she will learn to be a beautician or a nail technician.
#2 has become a warrior. “I have a name of war, and it Disgruntled,” she announces. Her personal dreams have been supplanted by cynicism and despair. “I stand for the revolution,” she insists, and, she seems to embody its ceaseless, senseless violence.
#4 knows how to read, yearns to be a constitutional lawyer. She puts up a front of disassociation. “I fine,” she says over and over when she is asked how she is. “I FINE.” But it is clear that she is not fine and that she finds solace in her fantasies about the outside world, where she longs to be. Her mere presence re-awakens the others’ interest in life beyond the hut. When #4 finds a book among C.O.’s loot, the others beg her to read to them, to entertain them; the book is about President Clinton and his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, to whom they refer as his wife #2.
“Liberia and America the same-o,” declares #3 as they begin to learn about Monica Lewinski and “Preseedent Cleentone.” “Liberia started by Americans.” Somehow this brings Monica into their fold, creates sisterhood. She is, indeed, an apt heroine.
The compound wives are astounded to learn that Monica is reviled for serving her chief, that she lacks the privilege of #1. These women understand Monica, whom they see as caught in the same kind of web in which they struggle to stay alive. Their circumstances are, of course, far more dire, and they are abused and exploited in ways Monica would have to endure, but at bottom, they see her as just a women, bowing, like them, to the whims and fancies of her man.
#2/Disgruntled is the only wife conversant with the rebels’ cause, and she is more apt to espouse slogans and empty rhetoric than she is to explain any of the underlying hopes for liberation. For her, as for the others, liberation is a limited concept at best. She is a character of extreme irony, refusing to be the puppet of any man but choosing in which man she’ll invest her trust, in which man she’ll place her destiny. She tells #4/Mother’s Blessing that a woman can’t hope to survive without having a man or two to protect her, even if she knows how to use a gun.
In fact, Disgruntled explains to Mother’s Blessing, in order to free herself from the threat of rape, that the job of the women rebels is to provide the men with younger women, fresher women to abuse. She insists that to survive, they must aid and abet even gang rapes that result in murder. “You want them to keep away from you?” She demands. “Then you better send one girl or many girls . . . .“You feed dem, you not get eaten. It dat simple.”
That Disgruntled and Mother’s Blessing are subservient to the cause of Liberia’s liberation is itself irony on a grand scale.
2003 Liberia is the ultimate symbol of extreme paternalism. Founded in 1847 by American abolitionists seeking to repatriate freed slaves back to Africa, it was originally populated by emancipated slaves, who were charged with the governance of their new homeland. Two of their first actions were to name the capitol after James Monroe, the great white father in Washington, and to legalize the slave trade and the ownership of slaves in Liberia. Over the next hundred and forty years, the country continued to be under the control of Americo-Liberians, descendants from those freed slaves, who monopolized political power in the same manner as other colonialists all over Africa. In 1980, Samuel Doe’s became the first indigenous leader, but he was a loathsome despot, who, in 1989, was overthrown by the equally loathsome Charles Taylor. The atrocities reported during the ensuing civil war shocked a world that thought it had learned all there was to know of extreme violence. It took till 2003 before he was finally deposed. By a powerful woman: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard graduate and winner of a Nobel Peace Prize.
Each of the women in this play has lost her mother or her daughter or both, and each is straining for surrogacy. They create family for each other, provide succor in their untenable situation. Still, while each woman is the other’s best hope for sustenance, she is also the worst author of subversion. Together, these women are equally and simultaneously capable of warm nurturing and heartless exploitation. They are bound by their need for community but torn asunder by the demands of the men who require them to compete. Each must wrestle the others for a place, a position, a hold that disempowers the others in some way, yet salvation will only find them when they are able to cleave to one another.
In the end, the C.O. discards them all, and though they may be free to choose their destinies, they will undoubtedly remain indefinitely eclipsed by the exigencies of war, by the heinous actions of their oppressors, by the simple fact that in a man’s world, a woman cannot be free. Their blood flows in every woman’s veins as every woman’s heart beats in every one of theirs.