SALT LAKE CITY — Eclipsed is a 2016 play written by Danai Gurira detailing the experiences of several women who are imprisoned as the wives of a general officer of the LURD rebels in one of the civil wars in Liberia just before the peace agreement in 2003. The subject is one of brutal honesty and truth about the travesties of war that are placed upon women, and I commend the University of Utah and director Stephanie Weeks for having the willingness and courage to take on this production.
The plot follows the wives taken on by an unseen officer, and how they try and make the best of the situation. Helena, most often referred to as Number One because she is the first wife captured, is played by McKenna Kay Jensen. She serves as the mother and protector of all the other girls that are taken in, as well as the one who takes charge of the the provisions they receive, but has some secret longings of her own. Bessie, also known as Number 3 (played by Terryn Shigg) is a young pregnant girl. Shigg is excellent at delivering Gurira’s dialogue, and there were many scenes, especially one where Shigg is informing others of the past happenings, that her skill in making Number Three real was evident. Another character is simply known as “the girl,” who was recently captured at the camp. Number One tries to protect the girl, but she is soon discovered and also taken as a wife by the officer. The girl is played by Darby Mest, who does an excellent job of portraying the challenge that these women face based upon their status and location. Maima, also known as Number Two, played by Madeliane Lamah, is a wife who decided to run away and become a soldier instead of be subject to the will of the officer. However, she also tries to come back to the camp and get the girl to join her as a soldier. The final character is Rita, played by Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin, a woman who is part of an organization working to bring about peace in the war torn country.
The entire cast worked so well together that it is hard to point out just one performance that can be commended. From the first scene to the last, Eclipsed is a haunting look at things that are difficult to comprehend as reality, especially understanding that this is something that is happening throughout the world right now. Elements of the show added a great deal to the overall effect. First, I commend Stacey Jenson for the work she did with the actresses to ensure the correct usage of Liberian English was portrayed. Additionally, dramaturgs Catherine Heiner and Mark Macey were superb at researching the real details of the setting, from what might be donated or procured at a war camp at that time, to the cultural expectations and references that would be expected in Liberia during the civil war. I felt that the lighting design by Michele Collins and the sound design by Shea Madson also gave a great deal of ambiance to the show, bringing about the fear and difficulty of the situation that was impressive.
On a personal note, while I have had a lifetime love of theatre, in my day to day profession I work with refugees settled in the United States, and brought a coworker with me to this production. As we watched the show unfolded, we were both overcome with emotion as this piece of art gave further clarity to the challenges we have learned about each day as we come to work and discover the stories that our friends have to tell. In one scene, Rita is teaching Number One to write her name, “Helena.” The excitement that Jensen brought to that scene was absolutely perfect, and I regularly have the honor to have see same excitement in my own work. I commend these students for playing these parts with the respect and reverence that it takes to tell stories of such magnitude and social importance.
The reality of the modern world is that many women across the globe are raped, imprisoned, used, abused, and then forgotten because of war. I am glad that stories like Eclipsed are being told, and I would encourage theatre goers to step out of their comfort zone to try and understand what it is like to be a woman without the freedom to go to school, read, make decisions about who she can love, and fear for her life on a daily basis. The five women on the stage of this production took on material that has the ability to bring empathy, understanding, and advocacy that is desperately needed.