The five actresses in “Eclipsed” appeared before the audience at the Yale Repertory Theatre Friday as Africans living in a rundown shack in Liberia, surrounded by guns, uncertainty and civil strife.
“Eclipsed,” penned by Danai Gurira and directed by Liesl Tommy, tells a story of women who must find their own peace and identity in a world filled with abusive male influence and constant violence — there are no male characters in the play. Though the play only debuted two months ago, there have already been two major productions preceding the one at the Yale Rep — a rare feat for a new play, Yale Rep spokesperson Steven Padla, said.
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School of Drama Dean James Bundy DRA ’95 wrote in an e-mail that the Yale Rep is doing two plays this year that are set in Africa, and that “Eclipsed” comes at a time when more people are becoming engaged with the global community.
“Many people are interested in what has been going on in Africa, and many Yale affiliated audience members think a lot about their relationship to countries around the world and see themselves as global citizens,” Bundy wrote. “I know very few people who are only interested in seeing plays that are about what they already know.”
The idea for the play originated while playwright Gurira was a graduate student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. After reading about Black Diamond, the famous female commander in the Liberian rebel army, in a 2003 New York Times article, Gurira said she wanted to do something about the “dearth of stories in the dramatic canon that give African women subjective voice.”
Four years later, she decided to go to Liberia for research, and she interviewed women about their personal experiences in the war zone.
“While I didn’t base the characters directly on the people I met, I was inspired by the fragments and experiences I came across,” Gurira said in an interview.
Gurira explained her choice to remove all men from the stage by quoting a Liberian proverb: “When two elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.” Gurira said she wanted to focus on the grass, which in this case is the Liberian women caught up in a conflict between men.
The entirety of the play is spoken in Liberian English, with different syntax and pronunciation, which Gurira studied in Liberia. And despite the use of a dialect that may be unfamiliar to most members of the audience, Gurira said the play’s cultural authenticity would attract the international-minded Yale community rather than alienate it.
“I hope [audience members] will find connections in a story that is not in their backyard,” she said.
Bundy said many of the themes and situations in the play are common human experiences.
“We have or make family units; we are kind and cruel to each other; we face critical decisions; we laugh; we struggle; we endure,” he wrote.
In one scene, a 15-year-old girl is forced to choose between becoming the fourth wife of a warlord or a joining the rebel army. Gurira said the ramifications of such harrowing experiences in the play are yet unclear, and the question of reintegrating and reconnecting with society is still unanswered.
“There is no neat answer and I certainly am not going to give that,” Gurira said. “We can only give voice to wounds and then figure out how to heal them and reconnect people with their original potential.”
The play runs through Nov. 14.