What’s in a name? Whether it’s your birth name or chosen one, your moniker is your identity. That’s why instances as seemingly innocuous as Facebook’s “real-name” policy, which threatens the status of accounts under chosen names, or obviously injurious as tattooing prisoner numbers on concentration camp victims during the Holocaust can each be so dehumanizing.
Naming the women that you kidnap and rape Wife Number One, Wife Number Three, and Wife Number Four is equally depersonalizing. That’s one more indignity that the three protagonists in Zimbabwean-American Danai Gurira‘s eye-opening, Tony-winning play Eclipsed must eventually reckon with, while being held hostage by a Commanding Officer (C.O.) in Liberia’s rebel army.
The setting is a war-worn shack on the C.O.’s compound, in 2003, four years into the Second Liberian Civil War. The trio’s living space consists of little more than small rubber tubs to wash with or do laundry, some simple cooking implements, old blankets to sleep on, used clothes and a torn and tattered Liberian flag — a metaphor for a broken country — hanging on a wall.
The fate of these fragmented young women living in captivity is similarly grim. They slave away for their “husband” (or, rather, their C.O.) and his fellow Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), cooking them cassava balls so that they can keep their strength in their battle against then-president Charles Taylor. The women must satisfy the C.O.’s insatiable sexual appetite, too. But the violence occurs offstage as one by one, each woman walks off to be assaulted on command. She then returns just moments later, to wash away any traces of evidence.
Although the trio live their lives off the battlefield, they live with military-style regimentation and a strict chain of command. Wife Number One (Stacey Sargeant) is at the top, and each subsequent wife is more powerful than the spouse after her. The C.O. supplies rations, and Number One distributes the food and clothing accordingly. She also designates chores and responsibilities. Still, she cares about her fellow “wives” and makes every effort to support them. Sargeant demonstrates incredible range in this role, credibly transitioning from bullish to tender and pained to joyful.
On the surface, she is a Sister Wife willing to tow the line. But deep down, she wants more out of life. It takes a copy of Bill Clinton’s biography, read to her by literate Wife Number Four (Ayesha Jordan), the group’s most recent addition, to awaken the possibilities of a more autonomous existence.
If Wife Number Three (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) seems more resigned to playing the happily complacent housewife once she gets pregnant, Wife Number Two (Adeola Role) is the opposite extreme. She has turned her back on domesticity to fight alongside the rebel army. When she returns to the wives’ shack, it’s only to sell stolen merchandise to the other spouses or recruit a new soldier. With an AK-47 strapped to her body, more fashionable clothing, and the new name — Disgruntled — she boasts of the sexual freedom she has as a soldier and the expensive jewelry she receives from high ranking officers, thereby convincing Wife Number Four to join her.
But on the oppressively smoky battlefield, things turn out differently. In some of Eclipsed‘s most powerful scenes, Wife Number Four, renamed Mother’s Blessing, raids and loots villages and shoots anyone — military or civilian — in her way. However, she, like Disgruntled, must still serve the patriarchal machine.
A chance encounter with Rita (Akosua Busia), an educated, successful, and independent peace activist searching for her own kidnapped daughter, shows the quartet that there’s yet another life path to consider. To get through to their authentic selves, she asks each for their name and even teaches Wife Number One to write hers down. It’s Helena. But not all are willing to play along. As the war (and play) ends, each woman is given a way out, if she’ll only accept it.
To highlight the fact that stories like this continue to play out in Africa, playwright Danai Gurira closed the opening night performance with a little tradition she’s tacked on to countless shows before; she read the names of two more women forced into bondage. This act, reminiscent of Cleve Jones’ decision to put the names of AIDS victims on a quilt, serves to personalize a people and their cause, helping us to relate and hopefully lend our support.
Eclipsed, through March 19, at Curran Theatre, 450 Geary St., sfcurran.com