“I was 17 when the war started. The first time I saw a dead body I freaked out. By 31, I could cross over a dead body without thinking twice. That’s not a normal life.” – Leyma Gbowee, Liberian activist
Since 1864 the Geneva Convention has established and re-established the rules of war in order to minimize harm to food supply, hospitals and businesses. However, in more than a century of meeting, there has been no rule outlawing sexual assault against women and girls. Rape as a weapon of war has pervaded human history, and recent wars in the Congo, Kosovo and Liberia devastated communities of women. The latter inspired actress/playwright Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, which follows four Liberian women who have been forced into marriage with a rebel warlord. In a shack in the African bush, the women struggle to survive after losing their homes, families and control over their bodies.
Eclipsed will be onstage at Milwaukee Rep March 3-29 under the direction of Associate Artistic Director May Adrales. Eclipsed premiered at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, DC in 2009, then opened Off-Broadway at The Public Theater in 2015 then transferred to Broadway in 2016. It starred Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Academy Award for her performance in 12 Years a Slave in 2014. It was the first show on Broadway with an all-black and female cast and creative team.
The script rarely refers to the women by their names, but rather as Wife #1, Wife #2, etc. Gurira drops the audience into their world toward the end of the Second Liberian Civil War. The women are still piecing their lives together when a 15-year-old girl, who has been taken as a concubine, arrives to serve one of the rebel leaders. Everyone’s new normal is upended when Maima (Wife #2) returns after having joined the rebel forces as a soldier. The girl must decide whether to remain in the shack, go with Maima or choose some other fate for herself.
Sola Thompson is playing Bessie (Wife #3) after having played The Girl (Wife #4) at Pegasus Theatre in Chicago last year. Thompson started doing theater as a child in Nigeria. Her family immigrated to Milwaukee after her father won a visa to work in an engineering job here. She says that she loves that the story is female-centric and that though the men are spoken about, they are never seen onstage.
“Women are amazing and more female-driven stories need to be seen and told, especially stories about women who are not from here,” said Thompson. “Because of the immigration crisis happening right now in this country, perhaps more people need to know the stories of these women.”
Jacqueline Nwabueze, who plays Helena (Wife #1), immersed herself in the stories of people who survived the wars in Liberia by watching their video testimonials online to prepare for the role. She says she wanted to get an idea of what they would have witnessed.
“It’s easy for us to think of war as something that happened in the past, but watching the vlogs of survivors who are the same age as me made it more personal,” said Nwabueze, who is from Brooklyn. “These people have endured so much and now they’re just living their lives. You would never know all of these horrible things happened to them.”
Liberia was founded in 1821 as an American colony for the resettlement of former slaves. The country declared independence from the U.S. in 1847. However, more than a century of political corruption, ethnic division and the exploitation of resources by American companies led to civil unrest, which made way for the country’s most recent wars.
The First Liberian Civil War lasted from 1989-1997 and the second one lasted from 1999-2003. An estimated 200,000 people died; and the wars only ended after interference from the United Nations and the Economic Community of West African States. Another pivotal element of ending the second war was grassroots activism from Liberian women who held sit-ins and went on sex strikes, much like the characters in the Greek comedy Lysistrata.
Over the last 17 years, the country has struggled to rebuild after the emergence of the Ebola virus and numerous environmental disasters due to poor infrastructure.
Both Thompson and Nwabueze stated that though the play deals with a serious subject matter, that should not dissuade audiences. There is plenty of humor and heart.
“There are very joyous moments throughout the play and we try to lean into that, because I find that not only is [my character] Helena resilient, but also black people are resilient,” said Nwabueze. “We find a way to make lemonade out of lemons and there’s a joy that can still be found in the most desperate situations.”
Kelundra Smith is a theater critic and arts journalist based in Atlanta. Her work has been
published in The New York Times, Food & Wine, American Theatre and elsewhere. She co-chairs
the diversity & inclusion committee for the American Theatre Critics Association and speaks about theater practices across the country. She has an affinity for chocolate cake, small towns, solo hikes, and a good story. Twitter: @pieceofkay Instagram: @anotherpieceofkay