‘The characters are compilations of people, every story is a compilation’ -Danai Gurira as interviewed in McCarter Theatre Centre Blog
This month I saw the brilliant play Eclipsed by Danai Gurira in its London premiere at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill. Set in the Liberian civil war it features 4 wives of a Liberian warlord and looks at their experiences. Deeply committed to presenting African voices, particularly female voices on stage, Gurira has written a piece that is both harrowing and comedic. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much whilst watching a piece that looks at the victims of rape in such a real way… The women she portrays are whole people, not solely victims and this alone is an interesting lesson for any writer to learn from.
- Well drawn rounded characters find lightness in the darkest of places and keep the audience with the story
Gurira says (in the McCarter Theatre Centre Blog interview) ‘I’m always looking to embrace as much of the richness of humanity in my characters as I can,’ and in Eclipsed she presents 5 very different characters who all have a different response to the situations they find themselves in at a time of war. This is a well used device to present contrary views and a deeper review of the story the writer wants to tell, but somehow these women transcend their function, for example of being a victim turned abuser, and become rounded characters through engaging and humorous dialogue. At one point the characters find a book, a biography of Bill Clinton, which the woman who can read reads to the rest aloud. By introducing this well known person and a story the audience know, the characters instantly seem less remote and we laugh knowingly as they try to guess what happens in Bill’s story next and imagine where he is now as we watch their story unfold. It brings a lightness to the action where we can sit with the characters and get to know them as human beings first.
- Long scenes disguise incremental increases in plot
We’re also presented with long scenes that introduce seemingly negligible, small actions between the 3 main women but very slowly, however, they become a melting pot of cause and effect that cleverly fuel the action. It never feels heavy handed as their different, dynamic personalities and roles carry the story and it doesn’t feel didactic at all. It also feels like Gurira is maybe trying to echo the actions of war where small things happen in succession, becoming bigger things that change everything. There is no massive culmination of plot at the end, the war stops and they are free to go, but as with the rest of the play, we’re left knowing that each decision the women make now will have big consequences on their lives.
- Use of split stage to tell 2 stories at once and leaving the warlord offstage
I really liked the staging of this play. I don’t know whether the split stage is in the script but having the journeys of the 2 different characters at points on stage at the same time really worked well to bring the different stories together: as one character learns to read, the other learns to shoot a gun. Another device that must be in the script is that we never see the warlord they are married to, which means that from the outset we are excluded from being able to put a face to their abuser. All the violence is kept offstage and the audience doesn’t meet any male characters, but this strengthens the women’s voices and puts their version of their experience at the heart of the piece.
When the warlord comes to select one of the women to rape, there was a lighting change to something starker, maybe a car’s headlights shining on them, assembled in a row in front of part of the audience. They then exit and enter as needed presumably from his camp. Gurira says that
‘I want them [the audience] to have a connection they can’t shake. To realize there is no other. That’s kind of what I try to do with my work, get rid of the concept of the other. That’s when I know that the story lives beyond me and is affecting awareness and our connection.’ (From the McCarter Theatre Centre Blog interview)
It is this image that has stayed with me after the play: of these very rounded funny women standing starkly in front of the audience to find out who will be chosen to be raped tonight. It’s definitely opened up the complexities of war to me and how different people survive it, and it proves that the often untold female stories of conflict zones are stories in and of themselves, not just a side line to the main action of the war.
Keeping with female writers writing about tough subjects in an interesting way May’s playwright is Marina Carr. Known for writing tough women in stories inspired by Greek myths (and looking for some inspiration for my own projects), I’m going to look at her play Portia Coughlan.