Liberian Girl

Local Zambian writer, Namwali Serpell, looks at how ECLIPSED speaks to Liberia's history, and our own by examining the local and global feminisms that run through ECLIPSED.

Namwali Serpell

Namwali Serpell (c) ImageNations

On January 21, 2017, my friend and I went to Oakland for the Women’s March. She, a white Jewish Californian, and I, a mixed-race Zambian immigrant, held hands so that we wouldn’t lose each other in the happy, shambolic progress of the crowd. At one point, I looked down and saw two little girls—one brown, one white—in front of us. They were holding hands too, chanting fierce words of protest through their giggles.

“Look,” I grinned. “It’s us.”

This was solidarity. This was the future.

But, of course, beneath the sprawling flood of solidarity provoked by the Women’s March—5 million people, 673 marches, 82 countries—internecine conflicts were roiling. The organizers of the March on Washington were beset with accusations of exclusion (What about the transwomen? The pro-lifers?) and the perennial problem of feminist whitewashing. One photo went viral. It shows a trio of white women in front of the Capitol, wearing pink hats and looking at their phones—one is taking a selfie. To their left is a black woman, later identified as Angela Peoples, a DC-area activist. She is sucking on a lollipop, holding a sign: Don’t forget: White Women Voted for TRUMP.

Every political movement is riven with contradictions. Shared oppression can be a reason for solidarity; it can also set the oppressed at odds with one another.

Danai Gurira’s gripping play, ECLIPSED, is keyed to these conflicts within a condition of oppression. As she explained to Broadway Direct, “I had seen a photograph of a woman in the rebel army in Liberia holding an AK-47 and found it fascinating. Then I started doing research, and learned about the work of the ‘peace women.’” During the second Liberian civil war, from 1999 to 2003, thousands of women were displaced, wounded, raped, killed, and forced into military and sexual service to rival factions. At least six hundred women joined Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), the rebel army at the center of the play. Thousands more staged mass prayers and nonviolent sit-ins that helped achieve peace; a few years later, Liberians elected the nation’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The head of Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, Leymah Gbowee, later shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with Sirleaf and Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni journalist and activist.

The history of feminism is not just marches in pussy hats or sit-ins in white clothes or Facebook pics of pantsuits.

Liberia, a coastal nation founded to relocate former slaves and wracked with civil wars, is an apt place to set a play grappling with intersecting legacies of oppression. For immigrant writers like Gurira, who grew up in Zimbabwe, America and Africa sit in an uneasy reflection with each other, as if the Atlantic itself were a murky mirror. ECLIPSED wrings dark humor from this: the play begins with one character recounting the plot of Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America. Later scenes include discussions of Bill Clinton’s biography: the scandal of his “second wife”; the incongruity of his visit to Uganda, where he held an African baby named after him. When one character gives birth to a daughter, she names her Clintine. But what was a joke, and maybe a hope, when Gurira wrote the play in 2007 is now a sour reminder. Liberia has had a female president for the last decade of its 170 years as a nation. The United States of America still hasn’t.

ECLIPSED takes place in 2003, right before the United Nations stepped into the Liberian conflict, ousted the sitting president Charles Taylor, and put in the transitional government that led to Sirleaf’s election. Conflicting ways to be a woman—militant resistance, nonviolent protest, peaceful compromise—are at the heart of the play. It revolves around four women who have been forced into servicing a Commanding Officer of the rebel army—they address each other according to their numbered ranking as his “wives”—and Rita, an older, educated woman on a peacemaking mission. All five women suffer under the particularly virulent blend of misogyny and violence that war concocts. The play sets up a young girl—the CO’s new Number Four, called “The Girl” in the script—as the locus for competing arguments about how to survive such circumstances. These are also arguments about how women should resist oppression.

Rita, who is searching for a daughter she lost to the war, presents the path of education, peaceful negotiation, and entrepreneurship. She teaches Number One, an older religious woman who cares for the other girls, how to write her real name. Number Three is reluctantly pregnant but moves toward accepting and even choosing the path of motherhood and partnership with the CO, “de fada of my chile.”

Liberia has had a female president for the last decade of its 170 years as a nation. The United States of America still hasn’t.

Number Two has joined the war as a rebel soldier. She dubs herself Disgruntled, wears fancy clothes, carries an AK-47, and quotes Tupac lyrics. (Gurira is set to play Tupac’s mother, who was a Black Panther, in an upcoming biopic.) Number Two persuades The Girl to put aside the book she’s reading and take up a gun instead. Together, she says, they’ll claim their power to control their own bodies—but also those of other women.

The Girl later delivers an anguished monologue about her role in another young woman’s death during a gang rape. Arguments for assuming the power of men, for manipulating it, and for succumbing to it clash in often hilarious debates and occasionally violent actions. Strategies mutate and drift. Each character struggles with different ways of being a woman, and no one way triumphs in the end. Motherhood might seem a sacred emblem of peace, of continuity, of a politics with its eye on the future. But in ECLIPSED, mothers and daughters are separated, embattled, complicit, with guns at each other’s throats.

The Girl is renamed Moda’s Blessing, but an anticipated mother-daughter reunion is thwarted. The devastations of war seem irreparable. When they are told the war is over, one woman who has been encouraged to return home says: “Do I have ma? Do I have pa?… ‘You can go,’ I don’ know whot GO means!” There is no going back. There is no clear path ahead, either.

Illustration by Wesley Allsbrook

Illustration by Wesley Allsbrook

ECLIPSED ends with a tableau of conflict—a girl with a gun in one hand, a book in the other, standing over a mother and child still in servitude to a violent man’s whims. This unresolved ending is a testament to Gurira’s insistence that the struggle continues. As she says elsewhere on our website:

"You want to leave an audience righteously befuddled. You want to leave them going, 'Dang, that makes sense and it doesn’t make sense.' Because that’s life. So you have to step into the things that clash and step into the things that seem very incongruent but that are truly human…. I always know I’m on the right track if I am stepping into a place of deep discomfort, which is often a place that is riddled with truth."

This discomfort is key to the powerful dissonance of ECLIPSED, which denies our expectation that the women be educated or killed, that they be saved or doomed. It is intrinsic to the project of an all-female play that does not carry a singular or “correct” feminist message.

Discomfort has an important role in political resistance. The history of feminism is not just marches in pussy hats or sit-ins in white clothes or Facebook pics of pantsuits. In 2015, when BlackOUT activists went topless in Oakland to call attention to the female victims of police shootings, they called out a specifically African lineage of protest as an inspiration. Indeed, the practice of women baring—or threatening to bare—their naked bodies is pervasive in the history of the continent: Nigeria, 1929; Kenya, 1992; the Niger delta, 2002; last year alone, South Africa, Egypt, Tunisia, and Uganda. In Zambia, my country, Mama Chikamoneka is famous for arriving naked at the airport in 1960 to greet the Secretary of State of the British colonies, Iain MacLeod. He was reportedly so shaken that he wept. When Lewmah Gbowee, Liberia’s celebrated Peace Woman, led a group of women in a months-long sit-in outside the Presidential Palace in Ghana in 2003, they not only threatened to remove their clothes, they also proclaimed a sex strike.

For a naked female body to be unabashedly nonsexual remains strangely, scandalously political. Why is this form of protest so striking? To start, it is steeped in tradition. In some African cultures, the sight of an older woman naked is said to be a curse. (There is a hint of this in Eclipsed, when the CO fears a curse from the women in Rita’s peacekeeping mission.)

By reclaiming the agency of the naked black body, demonstrators shame their oppressors, especially those from a Western culture that has long proclaimed “the savagery” of that body. When women bare their bodies in protest, it is a theatrical and political performance. They showcase their physical strength; their potential, actual, or refused motherhood; their cultural and gendered knowledge; and their artistic currency as objects of beauty usually subjected to the gaze and violence of others.

ECLIPSED is not a work of art in which women appear naked. But it is not incidental that all its female characters, barring Rita and the baby, have been sex slaves. And every time one of the CO’s women returns from her nightly duty, grabs a wet cloth, and swabs between her legs, it is a gesture rife with politics. Quotidian, uncomfortable, real, sometimes bloody—it is distinctly a woman’s movement.

ECLIPSED runs at the Curran from March 7th to March 19th. Get your tickets today.