As you enter the theatre there is heavy smoke in the air. It smells as though firewood is being burned close by. Before you can find a seat you’re immediately immersed into the atmosphere, desperate to breathe clean air. But as for what happens next, there’s a strange void in language that doesn’t allow me to capture truly what I saw.
Eclipsed is written by actress and playwright Danai Gurira, who is best known for playing the character Michonne on the zombie drama The Walking Dead. She was born in the United States but raised in Zimbabwe. The play is set during the 2003 Liberian civil war and focuses on four women held captive in a diminutive shack by a warlord and used as sex slaves. The subject could have some running for the door, but this is a war tale like no other.
Eclipsed opened at the Soweto Theatre on August 22. It is directed by Warona Seane, a Naledi Award nominee for best director, and produced by Matjamela Motloung from Rubin Noir.
The play opens with two of the women going about their chores. Being captives, these women have not only lost their bodies, relatives and homes, they’ve lost their names and identities as well. They use numbers to refer to each other, based, I assume, on who was captured first. Number One, Helena, played by Lerato Sekele, is a particularly interesting character; she is the group’s protector, matriarch and sage. Her years in the house have seemingly taught her how to be cohesive, not only for herself but the others as well. Sekele’s performance is captivating. When all else seems dim you can count on Number One to shed some light, to resolve the conflict with humour or by force.
Number Two, Maima, played by Ferry Jele, is an abductee who escaped and became a rebel soldier. Maima is a deeply flawed character, but what she’s been through makes her what she is: cunning and driven by desperation and the will to survive. Jele’s performance left me with no impression of her as an actor but only of the character she played, whom she brought to life.
Number Three, Bessie, played by Nqobile Sipamla, is pregnant with the commander’s baby. Her naivety and sense of humour is refreshing, but her story, like most of the women held captive, is heart-rending. Sipamla plays Bessie’s idiosyncrasies and nuances seamlessly.
The youngest of the group, Number Four, is a young girl from a good family who died during the war; she is struggling with the trauma of war, losing her family and her abduction. The girl, as she is called, is played by Koketso Mojela, who delivers an emotive performance of a young girl trying to make sense of a society torn apart by war and struggling to hold on to the hope that she might one day be reunited with her mother. The four women’s relationship is solidified when the commander gives them the spoils taken from civilians – some clothes and a biography of former US president Bill Clinton. Because the girl can read, she reads to the other women the story of Clinton’s impeachment hearings. Clinton’s scandal with his Number Two (Monica Lewinsky) brings these women closer together.
With the help of Rita, a peacemaker from the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, played by Dawn Msomi, Number One is driven to better herself through by learning how to read and write. while Number Two lures Number Four to war.
Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace was a movement that played a huge role in bringing about an end to the civil war in 2003, and through Rita we’re given an idea of how brave these women were. Not only did they Pray the Devil Back to Hell (a must-see documentary directed by Gini Reticker on how a group of women helped to get Charles Taylor out of office), they were also able to get Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy to disarm and provided needed support to child soldiers and women who were held captive.
Eclipsed brings to the stage a tale of hopelessness, but it is not without a glimpse of optimism. It’s a tale of what happens when nothing is left but try to stay afloat. Each of these women is able to find ways to cope with the situation. We might not agree with some of the choices they make, but they have little choice but to do whatever it takes to see another day. Gurira’s brilliance is in her ability to give us real women in distress and not the overly done ‘victim of war’ narrative of the living dead, hoping and waiting for rescue from elsewhere. These women may be flawed, but they are humorous and driven till the end.
I doff my hat to Seane for her direction and Eclipsed South Africa for bringing this amazing play to our shores.
Eclipsed runs until August 31 at the Soweto Theatre