Last night I saw “Eclipsed”, a riveting play by Danai Gurira, and I had to sleep on it before I attempted to speak on it. This is not a review because it’s been reviewed to death already by people more interested in and knowledgeable about dramatic structure than I am. No, what I want to do is speak about this play from the standpoint of how it moved me to think about a number of things regarding the intersection of art and social/political issues.
I knew the premise behind the play before seeing it, thanks to the huge amount of press it’s garnered due to the inclusion of award-winning actor Lupita Nyong’o in the cast and as the person who shepherded it on to New York stages (The Public first and now The Golden). I was, however, not truly prepared for how I would respond to embracing these realities when confronted with them via a theatrical performance rather than a newspaper or online article and what thoughts would be evinced. Bear with me as I weed through some of mine in the aftermath of this wonderful production.
Danai Gurira has written a piece that both dramatizes the tragedy of civil war while also illuminating the particular burden placed on women and girls living within these conflicts. This “womancentric” view of war made me reflect on how easy it is to forget that we as Black women (and women of all ethnicities for that matter) always bear a burden during war that is totally different from that of men since we are the creators of humanity (until such time as men figure out how to create babies without female eggs!). That we can be conscripted to officially take lives as a result of now being members of the fighting military, or police forces, places us in a role that is in many ways the antithesis of our natural one i.e. creators of life. An aside: I think this play particularly resonated with me because I saw it on Mother’s Day weekend.
“Eclipsed” also made me aware that stripping a girl of her humanity by making her both a product and by-product of war, mirrors what I see happening daily to Black children/women/families throughout America who live in violent warzones aka Urban America. Where we differ, however, is in how the world views both situations. The children, especially child soldiers, coming out of civil war conflicts throughout the world are viewed with a certain level of compassion and more seen as victims than captains of their own fate. Organizations are created to provide re-entry services for these children, allowing them to receive psychological counseling to deal with the horrors of war along with a myriad of other services. Black children living in Urban America who turn to gang violence as a way of surviving in a violent community are typically seen simply as thugs and only worthy of punishment not compassion and no such services are available to them. Mothers who birth these children are usually maligned as deficient or worse, totally negligent because how else could their children become such “monsters”. Gurira takes you on a journey that makes you understand the psychology underpinning the dehumanization of the Individual as she weaves each child/woman’s story about how that character arrived at her position. You feel empathy for each one because you know none of them had a choice in their situation. You feel for them because each one was taken as a child by the warlords and systematically raped into compliance and ultimately complacency. Only two of the characters escape this placement in society, but only after embracing the politics of their captors and becoming dispassionate killers like their male peers.
Well I couldn’t help thinking as I watched these African young women struggle to hang on to their humanity, just how difficult it is for young African American women & girls (and men & boys) to retain theirs as they live in a society that devalues them and ignores their circumstance, one that so often puts them in a constant state of danger. The subtext that Danai Gurira threads through “Eclipsed” is the importance of retaining one’s given name (your ultimate tie to family/society/history; all the characters are nameless throughout most of the play) and how something as simple as that forces one to remain human and thereby compassionate and empathetic (remember the importance of removing of Kunta Kinte’s name in Roots?). The playbill has an insert from the #knowhername movement and a list of each Boka Haram kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls’ name so that you are clear how important knowing the names of these victims is to having them remain “real people” not just statistics. At the performance I attended Jill Scott joined the cast onstage after the performance to share a story of her friend’s disappearance in high school, the story of an African American girl who was never found and whom no one but her friends and family probably ever knew was missing. It made me think of the numerous African American girls who go missing every day that never get the media attention that even one white girl does. I loved that this opportunity was taken to make the American audience aware that this is not only some story about a foreign situation. It also made me cringe thinking of how fast these 276 Nigerian girls faded from the international media limelight and how anonymous they were even at the outset of their abduction. This play was both a powerful and painful reminder of how much Black lives don’t matter across the globe, especially those of Black women and girls.
I know I’ll be thinking about this production for quite some time and will likely write some more about it as I sift through my emotions about all that it evoked. But for now, I will reiterate what the cast implored its audience members to do “Know Her Name”. Know her name whether she’s a child abducted by military kidnappers across the globe or a domestic abductee by American human traffickers or rapists/hostage-takers, Know her name and never forget her worth. #blacklivesmatter #blackgirlslivesmatter #knowhernameabout