A pack of tough-as-nails women populate Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, a play spotlighting the war-torn world of Liberia during the civil wars. Though the current production at the Kirk Douglas Theatre delivers solid performances and a gorgeous recreation of the African Bush, the script needs some work. There’s a moving story at the core, but overwritten scenes and redundant moments plague the narrative.
The story centers on the women of Liberia, revealing the two roles available to them during the wars: wife and soldier. The wives suffer a life of servitude and sexual humiliation, sharing one husband with several women, while the soldiers have a kill-or-be-killed mentality. Either way, it’s a life of violence for the women of this play, and their options look grim. Ironically, Liberia is the first African country to have a female president, and the play does not ignore the role of the peacemaking activist females who eventually came to full power in Liberia, seating one of their own in the top leadership role.
The story launches with two initially nameless women who identify themselves only in relation to the one man they both married, the nameless “General.” Wife Number One (Bahni Turpin) and Number Three (Edwina Findley) chat about the simple things, while a third soon-to-be wife, The Girl (Miriam F. Glover) meekly chimes in. As they talk, the women also do housework, tending to their dirt-floored encampment, which features old blankets for beds and a paucity of food. When their offstage husband has one of his frequent hankerings for sex, the women stand at attention, waiting to see which one of them he’ll summon.
Thus, we’re transported to Liberia sometime after the Clinton administration and during the George W. Bush administration, a time when wars raged and women brought about the ultimate regime change.
We switch from the world of the wives to the world of the soldiers when we meet the former Number Two (Kelly M. Jenrette), who brazenly struts on stage clad in slick jeans, a flashy top and tacky sunglasses. She’s also toting an assault rifle. The sex-slave role just wasn’t for her, so Number Two chose the life of a rebel soldier instead. She taunts and insults Number One and Number Three, coaxing The Girl to leave the family and join her in battle.
Thus, the story begins to hinge on the journey of The Girl, the character we see fill both roles, the burdened wife and the bloodthirsty soldier. It is through her journey that we try to decide which life path is preferable.
When Rita (Michael Hyatt), a peacemaking activist seeking true change in Liberia, enters the scene, the women just might have a chance to do something other than shoot or serve.
There isn’t a bad performance in sight here, and it’s a pleasure to see an all-female story that has serious dramatic teeth. Gurira gives her characters guts, strength, and unthinkable survival skills; thus we root for them to come out of this violent era alive and well. But the story repeatedly gets stuck in tedious corners. By the time Act Two rolls around, we’re aware of the stakes, we’re aware of the limited choices offered our characters, we’re aware that war is hell, and we’re painfully aware that women don’t sit on the sidelines when that war is raging in Liberia. But all this awareness is delivered via a repeated, didactic clubbing over the head, instead of through authentic character development. It’s as if the characters are all symbols, not real, living, breathing people enduring unthinkable emotional and physical strife.
The story is a worthy and instructive one, but if you’re looking for human connection, it’s hard to find here. Ironically, the playwright traveled to Liberia and based her characters on real women, whose stories, she says in the playbill, have been eclipsed. It would be truly wonderful to see the full light these half-drawn characters undoubtedly cast in real life.
Through October 18 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Call 213.628.2772.