Rape has been designated as a form of genocide and crime against humanity ever since the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague prosecuted it as a war crime after the Rwandan Holocaust. During war, rape is intentioned as a “strategic reward” for soldiers and a useful act of demoralization, violence, and terror to oppress and control. In Danai Gurira’s brilliantly rendered and remarkable award winning Eclipsed, about the Liberian Civil Wars, we learn how victims are forced to confront an initial choice between Scylla and Charybdis: they may accede to sexual brutality or resist and die.
In her amazing and profound characterizations unforgettably acted by Lupita Nyong’o, Saycon Sengbloh, Pascale Armand, and Zainab Jah, the playwright configures four “wives” three of whom live on a rebel compound. They are the hapless sexual slaves of a rebel general who euphemistically is their “husband.” Gurira introduces another wife, after she reveals the conflicts. The introduction of Wife # 2 ( Zainab Jah in an incredible performance), is an astounding moment.
As the play progresses we understand why the women are subservient to this minor warlord. They have witnessed the rape, mutilation, torture of innocents and slaughter of babies, children, family, and friends. They are “lucky” to be alive amongst the 200,000 casualties of the civil wars, the bloodiest and most barbaric of wars in recent times: warlords and soldiers gave way to cannibalism and ritualistic human sacrifice to strengthen their power and invincibility.
Ironies abound. We learn that though they may have saved their own physical lives, the women have done so at a perilous cost. The traumatic emotional and mental consequences of their oppression ravage their souls. They try to get through each day with humor and an extravagance of competitive pride, but the stress of their captivity and dire circumstances negotiating the thin edge between tortuous existence and death is at a heartrending and suspenseful break point. They are in psychological denial of what is happening. The periodic moments of relief interspersed with tension and shock are wonderfully engineered by the superb director (Liesl Tommy), the playwright’s exceptional development of characters and story arc, and the entire cast’s inspired, invested acting.
The development of the story-line explodes with power and moves to a series of increasingly dramatic climaxes. Gurira affirms that when inhumanity is in the ascendance, no one is safe, not even those who control. This is true for those who are alive to face either psychological or physical torture at the hands of raging psychotic terrorists for whom power is a privilege and a toy. And it is heartbreakingly so for those who are completely engulfed by the spirit of war who become rebels, active agents of slaughter, mutilation and horror.
Our gradual discovery of these themes begins at the outset when Wife #1 (Saycon Sengbloh), with begrudging acceptance from Wife #3 (Pascale Armand), hides a newcomer, The Girl (Lupita Nyong’o), to prevent her rape by the general. Not enough praise can be lavished upon these actresses who are nominated for well deserved Tony Awards. Saycon Sengbloh’s expertly layered portrayal as the matriarch of the ersatz family is protective, fierce, proud, good natured, commanding, empathetic, beautiful as she reveals her anguished loss of her old identity and poignant struggle to perceive a new life for herself. Having endured oppression and captivity since she was a teenager, we come to understand her status and how she has survived by her wits and toadying ingratiation to the general whom she sexually services until she has been “used up.” Her current role is to organize their quarters and nurture and help younger “wives” who become the sex slaves of the general. Sengbloh is seriously magnificent in the part.
The personalities of each of the wives is dissimilar. The playwright ingeniously provides humorous incidents. She lulls us into becoming inured to the horrific situation, until Gurira raises the stakes and disturbs us with additional ever increasing shocks to outrage our sensibilities. Throughout, we are engaged with the women’s interactions and drawn to each in their attempts to establish unity, support and encouragement for one another. Much of the humor comes through Wife #3 and the other’s reactions to her forthright comments and youthful exuberance despite her captivity. Pascale Armand’s portrayal is adroitly timed to the cadences of humor. She is masterfully intuitive, musically light, yet layered with sardonic undertones that always intimate the heartbreak and despair in her soul. She is a gem that sparkles light and dark, vehemently swearing she will hate the general’s baby. After giving birth, she is loving and maternal happy that her child resembles her beauteous self.
Lupita Nyong’o’s portrayal of The Girl is stark, overpowering, iconic, filled with complex and profoundly moving emotional shifts. Initially, she is shy, repressed, tense, with an emotional reticence that masks the horror she has witnessed. By degrees as the women interact, she opens up. Though she is raped by the general becoming Wife # 4, she follows their lead and sustains his abuse attempting to maintain her personal viability. In this she reveals stoic strength and determination and even encourages them by demonstrating her literacy (she reads from Bill Clinton’s autobiography and as the women relate his affair with Monica Lewinsky to their circumstances with the general they are hysterical). Though she rallies Wife # 1 and Wife # 3 around her and professes her goals to have a future career, there are the continual sexual demands from the general which erode her hopes and dull her will. As Nyong’o’s Girl retreats into despair, she breaks down, unable to withstand his repeated attacks on her person-hood and autonomy. The arc of her portrayal is breathtaking.
In a main theme of the play Gurira shows that the viciousness of such war crimes impact each individual differently. Gurira questions who is to blame for this, if each individual has a different breaking point? Some (like Wives # 1 and 3), are able to endure as their minds, souls and bodies are battered beyond their own recognized memories and identities perhaps sustained by hope, perhaps by fear. For others this is not possible, especially when their dreams which they have believed in are shattered and their identities and memories are so engulfed in torment that they cannot recover except through violence.
Gurira’s contrast between Wife #1 and # 3, and Wife# 2 and The Girl, makes for an intricate and empathetic counterpoint as we experience the evolution of The Girl’s character and her response to the atrocity of sexual abuse, and witnessed slaughter. The Girl allows herself to become brainwashed to join the rebel forces becoming Wife # 2’s prodigy. As Wife # 2 Zainab Jah is formidable, commanding, utterly persuasive and terrifying as an amoral, female soldier of savagery. She provides “meat” (young girls as sexual slaves), to the soldiers to “save” herself and commands The Girl to do the same. She chooses not between Scylla or Charybdis. She selects a far worse fate by transforming into a veritable Bellona (Roman goddess of war without the mitigating wisdom of Athena), and a recruiter for the spirit of annihilation. For Wife # 2 it is better to become empowered by evil, then to be subjugated by it. Duped by the illusion of dominance, war and the rebels’ abuse have turned her into a psychotic killer.
Under her ferocious tutelage, Nyong’o’s Girl plunges into the abyss of genocide with murderous rapacity. We experience Nyong’o’s transformation like a shattering earthquake. As we watch her rage at her victims, we know her innocence is lost forever. From such destruction can there be hope of healing?
Hope does come through the characterization of the peacekeeper Rita (in a poignant, heartfelt, and sensational turn by Akosua Busia). Rita comforts the brokenhearted and tries to help them reconnect with their true identities by inquiring about their past and asking them to recall their original names. It is an act which holds powerful symbolism. Akosua Busia is perfection in portraying Rita’s unassuming skill to search out the souls of these devastated women; they resist, not wanting to recall the pain associated with their lost lives and histories. However, as she lovingly persists, there is the faint spark of renewal. Will her efforts win over The Girl and Wife # 2 to extricate them from their identities as killing machines? Will it pry away Wife # 3 from the general’s fearful grip after peace is negotiated? Will Wife # 1 be encouraged to create a new life for herself?
Gurira’s play elucidates the themes of war: the ongoing struggles of those who live and suffer, the loss of loved ones, one’s history and identity eradicated by demoralizing war crimes, the shattering of those who attempt to empower themselves by choosing the violent way which is ultimately the way of self-destruction. She lifts up those who endure and wait with resilience and hope. But she asks this final question: can we judge others under such horrific circumstances? Those who move from victims to terrorists are more than “eclipsed;” they are in an abomination of desolation in their souls. Whether they can ever heal becomes the question of the ages.
The production is layered in genius everywhere one turns, from the acting and directing to the entire design team. Together, the elements elucidate and strengthen the characterizations and themes. This incredible production which was initially presented at The Public Theater is sure to be a Tony Award winner. See it before it closes on June 19th.