Broadway’s First All Female Production Comes to SF
In a crumbling one-room shack in war-torn Liberia, three women huddle around a massive biography of Bill Clinton. One of them – the only one who’s literate – reads carefully aloud, pausing after sounding out the name “Monica Lewinsky.” There is momentary confusion until one of the women concludes the obvious: she’s his “number two” wife. This is one of the more subtle moments in Eclipsed, which opened Thursday at the Curran Theater, but also one of the more telling. The audience erupts in laughter, not at the character’s ignorance, but at the irony.
Eclipsed, written by Danai Gurira (of the The Walking Dead) and directed by Liesl Tommy, is the story of five women on rebel compound during the second Liberian Civil War. Three are held captive as sex slaves by a commanding officer (referred to as “C.O”) and call themselves Wife Number One, Three and Four. There was a Wife Number Two, but she ran away to join the army; while the others lead a life of subsistence and wait with panicked eyes for the C.O, she has joined the ranks of her abusers in order to save herself. A fifth women, Rita, is a member of the Women’s Liberian Movement. She is on the compound working to broker peace, but her claims that there’s a better life somewhere are received with tentative skepticism by the enslaved wives and incite fury in the gun-toting Number Two. There are clear indicators of Stockholm Syndrome in their response, but their reality is more complex that that. In this world, acceptance of the current reality is critical to survival.
They considers themselves lucky, even privileged, that they are sex slaves to only one man, when they know in other compounds, any man can rape every woman. They adhere carefully the roles and responsibilities inherent in the hierarchy of their home. They even become jealous over the affection of the C.O, even though they consider him ugly and loathe when he comes to “jump on” (rape) them. They know they are prisoners, but strive for their happiness within that framework. Number Two believes she has escaped, but has become a ruthless murderer, and as we learn, is subjected to a different version of the same torture.
In one particularly grim scene, she has lured Number Four into the Army with the promise that once she gets a gun, no man will “jump on” her again. As she soon as she begins her training, Number Two asks Number Four whether she has picked a man to “love on” yet. Number Four protests that she was promised that the Army would free her from sex with men. Number Two looks at her as though she is insane, and explains that she needs to sleep with men in order to procure protection and money, but her gun has earned the right to choose. Ironically, Number Two clarifies that at least one of the men she chooses must be “high ranking.” In other words, she has traded one C.O for another. She doesn’t have real freedom, but she has some choice, and this is a victory for her.
If this sounds a bit off to us, it is devastating to Number Four, who is only 15, and clearly more traumatized than the others by the sexual assault. In her stunned face we see the unpopular truth: that in this world there is truly no way to be saved, only the hope that you’ll be lucky enough to pick your poison.
Which brings me back to Monica Lewinsky. Through the lens of the play, we see that underneath all the layers of American excess and glamor, she’s ultimately just another woman caught in a situation where sex with the C.O seemed like the best guarantee of freedom. Gurira and Tommy have done a brilliant job of bringing to life the bleak physical and political landscape of Liberia, and place critical attention and one of the greatest (and most neglected) human rights crises of our time. But they have also created a stunning, searingly accurate portrait of the female condition.
Each actress is able to depict tragedy beneath a veneer of relatable humanity. There are moments of passion, but almost melodrama. The set construction – a three-walled hut placed center stage, makes us feel that while we’re not in the room, we could easily enter. Similarly, the understated strength of each woman’s performance reminds us that these could be our friends – or ourselves. Too often, we view crises through the lens of privilege, and make distinctions between “us” and “them.” Eclipsed shows us that all women have more in common than we might think and that no women are free until all women are free. Until we accept that, we too are living in a world where escape is just an illusion.
Eclipsed is playing at The Curran Theater in San Francisco, after being the first play with an all female cast, female playwright and female director to run on Broadway in NYC. It runs March 9th – March 19th. Tickets available here.