Eclipsed, the 2009 play by Obie Award-winning playwright Danai Gurira tells the story of an unlikely sisterhood of five women in civil war-torn Liberia. Frank Theatre’s regional premier of the work opened Friday at the Playwrights’ Center (2301 East Franklin Ave.) in Minneapolis.
In Frank Artistic Director Wendy Knox’s hands, the production is intense, but never heavy-handed. A strong, well-matched cast brings to life the play’s humanity and occasional comedy, which make themes of loss of identity amidst the horrors of war less emotionally-draining than you might expect without lessening the power of its message.
Frank favorite Shá Cage brings dignity and depth to the role of Helena, who we come to know in the play as Number One. Like the other female characters she is referred to by her rank in the pecking order of concubines (euphemistically, “wives”) of “the CO”, a warload in Liberia’s most recent civil war. Hope Cervantes is Bessie (Number Two), a wannabe Diana Ross-lookalike always on the look out for fancy clothes and a new wig. Yeukai Mudzi plays “The Girl” (aka Number Four), the most recent addition to the CO’s harem, with a perfect combination of naïveté and strength.
Nisreen Dawan is Maima, (once known as Number Two in the compound), now a tough, rifle-toting soldier with a penchant for designer clothes made in America (we see her first in a Tommy Girl shirt). The cast is rounded out by Signe Harriday as Rita, a peacemaker who has come to help put the lives of the country’s women back together, though she herself has lost everything.
Eclipsed is as much defined by what you don’t see as what you do. Men are talked about, but never seen. The CO, in relation to whom the female characters have chosen their very names, is made known only by a door that eerily drifts open whenever he calls for whichever concubine he fancies at the moment. The war itself, news of which we get only second-hand or on a cheap boom box which can’t seem to hold its radio signal, defines (or eclipses) everything. Helena, at one point reflects in her West African-accented English dialect in which the entire play is presented, “I don’t know who I is outside this war.”
Bringing some of the humor to the production is the appearance of a recent American president’s autobiography, from which Number Four reads to the other women. Also lightening the mood is Bessie’s penchant for wigs – at one point she laments her wig has fallen off even as she’s dragged off kicking and screaming to the midwife to give birth.
Michael Croswell’s set gives us a multi-functional indoor/outdoor room at the CO’s compound where the women sleep on the floor in squalor. Other scenes take place just outside and on the front line of the war where Maima teaches Number Four – after she recruits her as a freedom fighter – how to use her rifle and “fire” (or kill) the enemy.
There are many reasons to see this play. It is perhaps one of Frank’s most thought-provoking productions of the past couple years, and if nothing else, it’ll give you a good excuse to brush up on your Liberian history, something Americans in particular might benefit from given the country’s political origins. Bit don’t let the contemporary political framework keep you away. Eclipsed is melded to its subject matter in such a way that the themes are relevant and universal even as it tells an important story of a specific war.
Eclipsed runs through October 10th.
(Take a behind the scenes look at Eclipsed: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_profilepage&v=sxL7Uw_yEPA)