Review: Eclipsed

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Valentina Imokhai, Sarah Nansubuga and Idella Johnson star in Eclipsed. - PHOTO BY JOHN BARROIS
  • PHOTO BY JOHN BARROIS
  • Valentina Imokhai, Sarah Nansubuga and Idella Johnson star in Eclipsed.

In Eclipsed, the rebels are very clear about their view of Liberian president Charles Taylor. They say he is a “monkey,” and they threaten to dress him like a woman before they kill him.

That strategic dehumanization and hunger for violence are not surprising given that the play is set in 2003, during what is referred to as Liberia’s Second Civil War. The West African nation had endured years of political turmoil before and since Taylor took over in the first Liberian Civil War in 1990. That the rebels want to dress him as a woman before killing him is a telling line in a drama focused on the “wives” of a fictional rebel leader, or warlord, whom they call C.O.

Playwright Danai Gurira, who stars in the film Black Panther, was born in the U.S. and raised in Zimbabwe. When Eclipse debuted on Broadway, it was the first Broadway production with an all-black cast and creative team. Southern Rep’s powerful production of the drama runs at Loyola University’s Marquette Theatre through May 6.

Idella Johnson stars as Helena, who goes not by her name but the position of Wife No. 1. That dubiously means she’s been with C.O. the longest, and also that she has a small measure of authority, at least over women and children on their compound. C.O. has three wives, all of them conscripted, less marriages than mob-style protection/exploitation arrangements. C.O. never appears, but it is clear that they cannot defy him.

Bessie (LaSharron Purvis) is Wife No. 3. She’s flighty and a little bit vain. She believes a wig makes her look like Janet Jackson, and that her youth makes her the most attractive to C.O. She’s also pregnant with this child.

As Eclipsed begins, they hide The Girl (Valentina Imokhai) from C.O. She’s 15 years old and unlike the other wives was able to go to school and learn to read at a rudimentary level.

As bleak as this setting seems, there’s humor in the shabby one-room building the women share. They pick from posessions seized by rebel fighters, and when a bag of clothes also includes a book, Bessie is excited to use it to facilitate starting fires to cook cassava. Instead, Wife No. 1 gives the book to The Girl, who slowly begins reading to them an account of President Bill Clinton’s presidency. They don’t recognize his name, but they quickly determine he is America’s “Big Man,” and that he too must have multiple wives.

Literacy begins to look like a tool to help them improve their lives, which is not presented in an idealistic way. Then Wife No. 2 (Sarah Nansubuga) arrives and represents a novel alternative for a woman in their predicament. She carries a machine gun because she has joined the rebel fighters. Nansubuga gives her an edgy sense of fearlessness, which gives the drama periodic jolts of adrenaline.

The cast is strong throughout. Johnson’s Helena is determined to stay on top of the small world she controls and her body conveys weariness from its pain and indignities. Imokhai shines as The Girl tries to figure out what path to follow in her young life. She’s soft-spoken but resilient. Purvis contributes most of the levity via Bessie’s naivete, but she too has a plan to deal with the situation. Lauren Turner is composed as Rita, a “Peace Woman” visiting the region on a mission to end the civil war and also to help women who can barely imagine a better future. As the situation deteriorates, she’s passionate and firm.

The drama is tense and the story is unpredictable as the women both support each other and battle over their stakes in the forced arrangement. As unacceptable as the situation should be, the chaos of the civil war outside is as threatening if not more so. Gurira’s drama manages to focus on the women and also give a good picture of the greater forces at work. Director Malika Oyetimein finds the right balance in evoking empathy for the women without portraying them as entirely powerless.

Liberia’s official language is English, but it has more than 20 indigenous language groups. The cast use accents that at times can be hard to understand. Some other appropriated speech tics are applied inconsistently.

Eclipsed has an engaging mix of menace and promise, and all of the cast members bring its hard conditions and choices to vivid life. In reality, the first woman president of an African nation was elected to lead Liberia in 2006. It’s hard to imagine that from this view of a rural part of the country just a few years earlier, but this is a fascinating story about strong women before one came to power.

Eclipsed
April 26-29 & May 3-6
7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday
Marquette Theatre, Loyola University, 6363 St. Charles Ave., (504) 522-6545
Tickets $8-$45

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