Woolly Mammoth's Eclipsed

It’s September, and that means the start of a brand-new theatre season. That’s always a cause for celebration, but even more so when the year of theatre-going begins with a play like Eclipsed, the opening production of Woolly Mammoth’s 30th Season. Eclipsed is written by playwright and performer Danai Gurira, who was one-half of the team behind In the Continuum, produced by Woolly Mammoth two years ago. I remember In the Continuum as being an excellent, arresting night of theatre, but Eclipsed manages to exceed it. While watching it I felt as though I was seeing the emergence of a major new voice in playwrighting, and it is likely Eclipsed will claim a place in the history of African American drama and woman playwrights.

Eclipsed takes place in a rebel army camp during the Liberian civil wars at the beginning of this century. In this camp we meet the four wives of the CO (Commanding Officer). The CO, like all the men in this story, is heard about, but never seen. His presence is felt, as the women line up and he summons one of them, either to take sex or to give presents. This play is about how these four women survive in a country torn apart by war, living with each other in a dilapidated structure (designed by Daniel Ettinger), where there is no running water and where rice is a luxury.

Gurira’s script is very, very smart. The story of her play is easily one that could become a vehicle of emotional manipulation. But this script is remarkable in its restraint; Gurira never takes the obvious route to audience tears. Instead she focuses on clear characterization and creates believable, fully realized women.

The play is about survival, specifically, the survival of women. And each of these characters finds their own way to survive. Wife #1, Helena (Uzo Aduba), survives by creating order and finding meaning in her position. Helena is strong and grounded; she not only commands the other wives, but she protects them also. Wife #3, Bessie (Liz Femi Wilson), manages to find delight in the small pleasures available in this terrible world: “new” clothes, her wig, the fact that she is young and pretty and the CO seems to want her the most.

What about Wife #2? Well that’s Maima (Jessica Fraces Dukes), and she’s not at home. She’s gone off and become a female soldier. That’s her way to survive. She finds power in the gun she carries. She protects herself, but not without cost.

The newest wife, #4, we never learn the name of (Ayesha Ngaujah). She is a girl that has come into the camp after just having lost her family either to death or capturing. She grows into adulthood through the influence of the three other wives. She is the one that must figure out what example to follow, and how to become a woman in this world.

Gurira’s near-perfect script is matched with stellar performances from Aduba, Wilson, Ngaujah, Dukes, and Dawn Wilson, who plays a peacekeeper that comes into the camp and teaches the women to hope for more. Dukes’s performance shows what a wise decision it was for Woolly to added her to their ranks. Her character in Eclipsed is unrecognizable from her character in Fever/Dream, who was unrecognizable from her character in Antebellum. I can’t wait to see what she, and Gurira, and Woolly Mammoth serve up next.

4 stars
through September 27


Anonymous said…
Get ready! You'll have another chance to be wowed by Ms. Dukes as she'll also appear in Woolly's next production, Chuck Mee's Full Circle, with yet another radically different role.

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