THIS is the third year of McCarter Theatre Center’s IN-festival, a series of readings and special events designed to develop new playwrights and present new work. Eclipsed is this year’s workshop production of the play by Danai Gurira, who originally presented excerpts of the work-in-progress at the very first IN-festival. That led to her doing further research in Liberia, where the play is set. At a festival reading of the complete draft last year, the producers said, “We were floored.” They weren’t kidding.
This incubation period has paid off handsomely, as this spotlight production of the work attests. In fact, the intimate performance space, The Room in the Berlind Theatre, can hardly contain the explosive power of this fully realized play. The action takes place in 2003, at a women’s compound of the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy. Despite its benign-sounding name, LURD is committing unspeakable atrocities as it sweeps through Northwestern Liberia in pursuit of the brutal dictator Charles Taylor and his forces.
LURD warlords are on a campaign of rape, murder and pillage. Their women are either willing chattel or participants in the mayhem. Survival means shedding one’s identity and casting a lot with the men who will protect them or get them what they want. In this camp, the warlord’s feisty Number 1 woman (Stacey Sargeant) is top of the pecking order. She doles out to her fellow concubines the booty from the CO — clothing, hairpieces, cheap jewelry, a book. Number 3 (Pascale Armand), who comforts herself with a blond wig, is pregnant and not looking forward to motherhood.
They are hiding a newly arrived girl (Keiana Richard), until she is discovered by the CO, who initiates her as his Number 4. Long-absent Number 2 (Nikiya Mathis), who refers to her rebel name “Disgruntled,” swaggers in unexpectedly one day with a rifle on her shoulder and a bag of rice. Unlike her colleagues, she has taken a different path. No one argues with the barrel of a gun, and she can choose her men, rather than submit to one. Or so she says.
Another unexpected visitor is Rita (April Yvette Thompson), a delegate from the Liberian Women’s Initiative. Her group has been visiting the camps of warlords and soldiers for a decade, pressuring them to stop fighting and negotiate.
The naive and partially educated Number 4 becomes the focal point in the struggle for minds and hearts. She is wooed by Number 2, who says the life of a fighter is the only way to empower herself. Number 4 is torn, because she cannot see herself committing the atrocities the others describe to her. But she is seduced by the thought of becoming her own woman and avenging the wrongs done to her family. And she has a taste for the simple pleasures that are otherwise not obtainable — like pink nail polish.
Every woman compromises in her own way. Rita has managed to escape the compromises as a respected businesswoman in the city. But she has lost her own daughter to the rebel camps, and her group’s efforts to change the course of the civil war have had limited results.
What could have been a very issue-heavy play with wooden characters based on various positions is instead a deeply heartfelt drama. These women are flesh and blood. They have put their own hopes and aspirations on hold as the war has broken apart their families and closed paths to the future. They get by, or they harden themselves.
The play has moments of utter heartbreak, as human atrocities are described. But it also has humor. Number 4 recounts the life of Clinton, which she reads unsteadily to her fellow concubines from a tattered book among the war booty. It seems Clinton has not only a Number 1, but also a Number 2, “Lewisky,” who has caused some puzzling consternation for his government. The adventures of this American Clinton and his government become the group’s regular bedtime story.
Under the direction of Liesl Tommy, the talented ensemble cast is simply amazing. With their Liberian patois, they convinced me I was sitting in the middle of a LURD camp. Everything feels authentic, every line, every situation, every nuance — even the spare set, economically rendered by Carrie Bellinger and lit by Paul Kilsdonk, with a realistic sound design by Bill Kirby.
And there is not a false note in the performances. Of course, in this intimate space, no seat is more than a few steps from the action, so total audience involvement is all but unavoidable. All together, this makes for maximum impact. And I must say, the play’s climax is electrifying. This is among the most affecting dramas you will see, and I fervently hope McCarter can bring it back to the larger stage sometime. It deserves to be experienced by many more than the lucky few who can attend this outstanding but limited production.
Eclipsed continues at The Room in the Berlind Theatre in the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, Feb. 4-6, 7 p.m., Feb. 7, 2, 7 p.m., Feb. 8, 2:30 p.m. Tickets cost $15, $5 students; (609) 258-2787; www.mccarter.org