That women suffer during wartime is hardly a news flash. Troops have raped indiscriminately throughout history. But a war crime is a war crime. And dramatists have appropriately revisited, examined and judged atrocities since the beginning of theater.
Danai Gurira’s drama “Eclipsed” gains strength from its specificity. Gurira sets her five-character story in the later days of the Second Liberian Civil War –– in which rebel groups opposed the rule of warlord Charles Taylor — and shows us that victims suffer equally regardless of which faction has the upper hand.
The Unicorn Theatre production, directed by Cynthia Levin, honors the show’s barrier-smashing New York run as the first Broadway drama written by, directed by and starring women. To underscore the point, Levin has assembled and all-female stage management and design team.
Set in a bullet-riddled shack in a rebel encampment, the play depicts a group of young women who have been taken prisoner and compelled to be the “wives” of an unseen commander. They are Helena, also known was Wife #1 (Dianne Yvette), whom the commander has given what amounts to a managerial role; Bessie (Ashley Kennedy), who was brought to the camp when she was an adolescent; The Girl (Teisha M. Bankston), whom the others unsuccessfully try to shield from the commander; and Maima (Njeri Mungai), “Wife #2,” who decides the only way out of sexual slavery is to pick up a gun and become a fighter. Their lives are put in perspective by the arrival of Rita (Amber A. McKinnon), an activist with an NGO who tries to show the captive women that there may be a hopeful future for them.
This all sounds rather bleak, but Gurira finds surprising opportunities for humor and redeeming expressions of humanity. The Girl is the only one among the “wives” who can read and the incongruous discovery of a book about Bill Clinton leads to satirical discussions of the American political system and whether Clinton had more than one wife.
The pacing in the Unicorn show is static, which reflects a weakness in Gurira’s dramatic structure. The shack becomes a claustrophobic environment alleviated only by a brief “combat” sequence in which Maima, after recruiting The Girl as a fighter, shows her the grim reality of killing the “enemy” and rounding up young girls to be delivered to the rebel commanders.
The performances are strong across the board but two stand out: Bankston, who negotiates The Girl’s seismic shift from innocent to angry militant with skill, and Mungai, a native of Kenya, who makes an indelible impression as the angry fighter who chooses to kill and capture innocents rather than be a sex slave.
This is neither a perfect play nor an ideal production. You have to train your ear to the authentic-sounding but sometimes impenetrable dialects. Even so, the cast’s commitment and the reality informing the drama offers something we need more of: Meaningful theater.
“Eclipsed” runs through April 2 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Call 816-531-7529 or visit www.unicorntheatre.org.