by Richard Dodds
In Eclipsed, it isn't a love that dare not speak its name. The names themselves have been obliterated by those who once carried them, a kind of self-dehumanization that helps them survive in their grim circumstances. The characters in Danai Gurira's play instead refer to themselves by numbers corresponding to the order in which they were forced to become wives-servants-sex slaves to a rebel officer in war-torn Liberia.
Number One can't remember how long she has been living in the remnants of an abandoned house, while Number Four is the most recent arrival and is reluctantly learning the ways of survival in her new environment. When an outsider asks Number One her real name, she is reluctant to say it out loud. She can only whisper it, hoping that will help keep her worlds from painfully colliding. For the audience, it is a quietly painful moment in an emotionally charged play that mirrors a title suggesting both darkness and a promise of returned light.
Following Fun Home, this is the Curran's second production after its renovation and independence from the SHN combine. It comes six months after Gurira's play concluded its Broadway run, with original director Liesl Tommy and her design team, along with both new and original cast members (who create an excellent ensemble), regrouping for this two-week run commissioned by the Curran's Carole Shorenstein Hays. It's unlikely a lucrative proposition, and one more encouraging sign that the Curran will not be a business-as-usual venue.
The early scenes are designed to settle us into the numbing rhythms of everyday life for these women. They bicker, tease, tell jokes, and share occasional fragments of their earlier lives as chores are done. A portable radio provides an unreliable ear to the outside world as news of the 2003 Liberian civil war aimed at toppling President Charles Taylor can be heard briefly through the static. While there is a pecking order to be observed, with Number One (Stacey Sargeant) reminding the others of her dominant position, the atmosphere is generally casual, at least until their unseen master signals he's ready for sex and the women hurry to form a line of military precision to await the man they refer to as CO as he makes his choice.
These getting-to-know-you scenes may at first feel dramatically light, and while English is the official language of Liberia, the patois that has developed since the country was created as a supposed haven for freed slaves and free people of color from America has become thick and can be tricky to decipher in Gurira's dialogue. But our ears have become accustomed by the time two women from outside the camp arrive that will upset the balance.
There is Rita (Akosua Busia), an emissary from a women's peace initiative (based on an actual movement of mass protests that helped end the war), who unsettles Number One with her talk of a life of different possibilities. Then there is Maima (Adeola Role), now a rebel soldier who was once Number Two and is trying to convince Number Four (Ayesha Jordan) to join her brigade. Besides killing the bad guys, Maima tells her, her job will include procuring other young women to satisfy the soldiers.
Number Four knows she will soon become CO's favorite sex object, now that Number Three (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) is pregnant, so she joins Maima's brigade, learning to use a rifle to shoot the enemy (although she can never quite see the distinction between the good guys and the bad guys). It comes to a head in a riveting monologue as Number Four relates her experience at a rebel camp as a complicit player in an unconscionable act of sexual violence.
If it seems otherwise, there are indeed moments of levity in the play. Number Four is the only member of the household who can read, and the only book available is a battered biography of Bill Clinton. The other women look forward to hearing it read in installments like a bedtime story. And then the book comes to Monica Lewinsky. "So who dis Monica?" ask Number Three. "She his Number Two, no?" says Number One. "I tink so," says Number Four, "but he no supposed to have a Number Two."
The play ultimately finds its heart in the sometimes-wary warmth that develops among these women who have been thrust unwillingly together. They have become a family, and when the opportunity to leave finally arrives, emotions and decisions are mixed. Eclipsed is set at a specific time in a specific country, but its situations seem to be too easily transferable. Somewhere, it seems with increasing regularity, there is always an eclipse to throw yet another dark spot on what we have long imagined as the forward march of civilization.
Eclipsed will run at the Curran Theatre through March 19. Tickets are $29-$140, available at sfcurran.com.