“Eclipsed” Gives Women a Voice in Its Condemnation of War @ Pegasus Theatre Chicago

3.5 stars out of 4

Danai Gurira’s 2009 play Eclipsed, now in a powerful revival by Pegasus Theatre Chicago at Chicago Dramatists, shows both the horrors and the ironies of war from a female perspective. Set near the end of the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003, when the lines between homefront and battlefront were blurred beyond definition, the play raises issues of agency, responsibility, access to education and family. On the surface, the women whose stories are told in Eclipsed are victims of the war, and the play makes it clear that women and children were made pawns and victims by both sides of the conflict. As the “wives” of an unseen Commanding Officer in a rebel group fighting then-President of Liberia Charles Taylor, they are exploited and sexually abused. However, they are aware of the choices they have—not many—and they have developed powerful bonds and rituals that help them both survive and retain their humanity. Woven through the narrative are sharp insights about colonialism, culture, war and the paternal responsibilities of countries (especially the United States) that tacitly supported the conflict.

Taking place just before the fall of Monrovia to anti-Taylor forces and Taylor’s exile, the fragile stability of the household Danai Gurira introduces is under threat. The “wives” of the CO are shielding a 15-year-old girl from their fates. She brings a new perspective, a belief in a world beyond war, one that sustains her even when she is discovered and becomes Wife #4. Unlike the other wives, she has seen a world where schools existed for girls and boys, and she is able to read. As the Girl, Sola Thompson captures the hope, confusion and impetuosity of a teenager who has been ripped from home under circumstances that seem progressively bleaker. As she experiences the war, she finds herself increasingly unable to hang onto her identity, which is more malleable than those of her fellow “wives.” As Helena, the “elder” (at 25) Wife #1, Maya V. Prentiss fully realizes the maternal role that has been forced on her, as well as the fact that her character chafes against it, allowing petty jealousies and power trips to creep into her common-sense and compassionate creation of a supportive home for the CO’s other captives. As the pregnant, immature Wife #3, Aja Singletary is alternatingly irritating and sympathetic. It is not immediately clear how hard she is trying to figure out who she is after having her life and passage to adulthood interrupted; as this becomes apparent, her strength is realized.  Physically absent, but very present through much of the first act is Maima, Wife #2, played with alternating charm and steely pragmatism by Adhana Reid, who has chosen a different path from the others. When we first see her, carrying a gun and much-needed supplies, she seems the embodiment of compassionate power, not at all like the person we were led to expect by Wife #1. Wife #4 is entranced by her and the choice she offers—stop being a victim and take up arms against the evil Charles Taylor. (The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that Charles Taylor must die.) As we see more of her, we see more of the Wife #2 that Wife #1 warned the other wives about—Maima has her own strategies for both avoiding and renaming her own exploitation, which, as it turns out, is just as inescapable as that shared by the wives she left behind. She has also accepted the moral code of Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, which results in atrocities that mirror those committed by the devil Charles Taylor. By act two, the war has become more heated, choices have been made, and a fifth character has become a constant presence, both in the wives’ shack and in the rebel camp. Rita, a new member of a peace organization, has the wisdom of years, and the memory of a time before and during the wars when she was a successful businesswoman. Morayo Orija wears the mask of the powerful matriarch but becomes increasingly vulnerable as her guilt and pain about the past become harder to obscure. The entire ensemble maintains sight of what is at stake for the women in their precarious existence, while also capturing the moments of joy and camaraderie that sustain them. In the final moments, these bonds make for a wrenching finale.

Director Ilesa Duncan allows the first scenes to unfold, despite the ever-present violence that the characters face, at an almost leisurely pace, highlighting the routines that Wife #1 has created to lend normalcy to the grim realities of the wives’ existence. The tension is subdued by the women’s recognition of their community and their relative good fortune (inconceivable to Americans—a fact that is reinforced when the women gain access to a book about Bill Clinton and apply their own analysis to both American politics and family dynamics). The tension builds so steadily that the revelation of the options open to the women after the war explodes like a grenade rolled into their lives. The action takes place in a makeshift shelter that looks neither strong nor permanent but shows signs of being lovingly maintained, designed by Jacqueline Penrod. Props by Amanda Caputi accentuate the balance of the indigenous traditions and hand-me-down goods from Western countries in the clutter that is kept tidy by the inhabitants of the shack. Costumes by Owé Preye Engobor likewise show a mix of Western and traditional styles—with the rebel soldiers sporting motorcycle and metal t-shirts with Timberlands, and the wives mixing brightly patterned dresses with Janet Jackson wigs, castoff denim and t-shirts. Megan Turnquist’s lighting design focuses on the importance of natural light—both daylight and darkness serve their purposes in the lives of the women portrayed. R & D Choreography injects the few moments of actual violence with force and intentionality. Shawn Wallace’s acapella music serves the opposite purpose, helping physicalize the familiarity of the women over years of confinement together. Sound designer Tony Bruno relies perhaps a bit too heavily on the strains of a finger piano in the first act, creating a lulling backdrop to the transitions, but he captures the sounds of the war-stricken setting, including the tenuous radio connection to the world beyond, and his score gains power as the play progresses. Dialect coach Carrie Hardin deserves special notice for the Liberian accents that further set the scene and create the bonds between the women.

With limited education and exposure to the world beyond their immediate realities, the women of Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed nevertheless understand the local and global political dynamics that constrain them—the drug abuse that fuels the soldier’s bravado, the gender imbalance that imbues interactions no matter whether a woman dons a white dress or a gun, and the need to stand together to defend their lives, their identities and their humanity. While it is a powerful indictment of war and the way it makes victims of those who lack agency, it is also a testament to the strength of those who defy victimhood even when that role is imposed on them. Ilesa Duncan allows this story to unfold deliberately and compassionately, eschewing melodrama for grounded portrayals of characters staring down circumstances that no one should ever face. The uniformly strong cast captures the determination of the characters to rise beyond their reality, and to make it better, by any means possible and necessary. One way or another, one knows—or at least believes it is possible—they will be fine.

Eclipsed, produced by Pegasus Theatre Chicago, runs through November 4 at Chicago Dramatists, 773 N. Aberdeen, with performances on Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. (with some Saturday 3 p.m. and some Sunday 7:30 p.m. performances TBD). Tickets are $18 - $30, with group discounts available, and can be obtained at www.PegasusTheatreChicago.org. For more information visit www.PegasusTheatreChicago.org or www.theatreinchicago.com

Photo by Suzanne Plunkett: (L to R) Sola Thompson, Adhana Reid, Aja Singletary and Maya V. Prentiss

Kerstin Broockmann spent years working in Chicago storefront theaters, mostly as a director, but also venturing into performing, designing lights and violence, stage management and writing/adaptation. Some of her favorite theatrical experiences include work with Azusa, Pyewacket, Rogue, A Sense of Urgency, The Strange Tree Group, Tinfish and Tripaway. She served for several years on the board of the Women’s Theater Alliance and helped coordinate the New Plays Workshop and Festival for two years, as well as editing and contributing to the WTA Newsletter for a spell. Now an AMS-Certified elementary teacher at Intercultural Montessori Language School, Kerstin’s directing work in recent years has been limited to staged readings, though she was also able to sneak in a production of Don Juan in Hell for Rogue Theater as well. A former amateur boxer, Kerstin has also written ringside reports for the blog Cyber Boxing Zone.