Pascale Armand, Zainab Jah, Adepero Oduye, Stacey Sargeant, Shona Tucker
Intermittently throughout Danai Gurira’s new play, Eclipsed, now running at Yale Rep, the women of an African compound, most of them wives to the same commanding officer, line up at attention, waiting to hear which will be called to his side.
A man’s voice never comes, but the women’s eyes reveal their interior monologues better than Gurira’s words could, as eloquent as they may be throughout. Beneath the women’s conversations, spoken in a rather heavy Liberian dialect, many of them strictly surface-level in terms of subject matter, there is a seething dissatisfaction, an ongoing battle against apathy.
If Gurira hopes to change the world, she’s likely to find herself heading up a creek without a paddle, but if theatre rarely if ever affects global change in any palpable way, Gurira’s play at the very least confronts an audience with relevant, challenging questions.
The play, which focuses on four wives of a powerful rebel in Liberia, follows these women’s story beginning with the arrival of the fourth wife, a young woman who’s been separated from her mother and finds herself preferring life as wife to a powerful man in this compound than life in one of the others, subject to whatever brutal treatment the men see fit.
The wives, who refer to themselves by ranking, have their own intricate dynamic. Number One (an excellent Stacey Sergeant) controls the household, though she’s not the C.O.’s preferred sexual partner. Number Two (spunky Zainab Jah), who used to hold his captive interest, has run off and joined the revolutionaries. Number Three, who’s pregnant with his child, finds herself increasingly brushed aside despite her attempts at maintaining her looks.
It’s Number Four (the more tender Adepero Oduye) who shakes things up, initially responding to Number One’s comfort and support but soon succumbing to the promise of power that Number Two presents to her, armed with a gun and reminded at every turn her that mistreating others will save her from an even more deplorable fate. Soon Number Four, who can read and write (she reads to the other wives from a biography of Bill Clinton), finds herself facing drastic choices between education and exploitation.
Gurira’s play is full of twists and turns along the way. By the play’s end Number Four’s journey feels as if it’s come full circle and yet must still withstand the test of time. Liesl Tommy’s direction keeps the play cutting toward its wonderfully ambivalent ending, leaving us with striking stage images worth remembering – the women lining up to meet their fate, the looming house behind the women’s shack (designed by Germn Cardens), a tattered American flag draped from its eaves.
Sound design by Broken Chord Collective, shot through with electronic noise, American music, and pulsing beats, only serves to enhance the broken sense of nationhood that’s at stake beneath these women’s stories, lurking behind their lives at every corner. It’s this political consciousness – enhanced by Gurira’s impeccable sense of plotting and character – that makes Eclipsed worth of note, a play of ideas that’s driven as much by action as it is by politics.