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‘Eclipsed’ Brings Story of Women in Liberian War to Dartmouth

  • Stephanie Everett, left, playing the role of Maima, Wife Number Two, rehearses a scene with Stella Asa, playing the role of The Girl, during a rehearsal for the Dartmouth Department of Theater production of "Eclipsed" at the Moore Theater in Hanover, N.H., on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Director Miranda Haymon talks to Esther Oluokun, who plays Bessie, Wife Number Three, about the role during a rehearsal for the Dartmouth Department of Theater production of "Eclipsed" at the Moore Theater in Hanover, N.H., on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Esther Oluokun, left, playing the role of Bessie, Wife Number Three, and Stella Asa, playing the role of The Girl, look at Bessie's newborn baby during a rehearsal of the Dartmouth Department of Theater production of "Eclipsed" at the Moore Theater in Hanover, N.H., on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Stephanie Everett, left, playing the role of Maima, Wife Number Two, rehearses a scene with Stella Asa, playing the role of The Girl, during a scene where The Girl receives a new name at a rehearsal for the Dartmouth Department of Theater production of "Eclipsed" at the Moore Theater in Hanover, N.H., on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, November 01, 2018

Mood shifts are typical in the world of theater, but the change was jarring nonetheless.

One minute, guest director Miranda Haymon was joking with the cast of Eclipsed about the intense effects of the small decaf latte she’d indulged in a few hours ago: “Look at all this food I bought on a caffeine kick,” she said, laying out a Clif bar, dried mango from Trader Joe’s and takeout from Tuckerbox, among other goodies. The cast members immediately fell into her orbit, laughing and debriefing each other on the day’s events.

The next minute, Haymon was sitting on the back of the couch in one of the Hop Center rehearsal rooms, pensively watching through oversize glasses as cast member Stella Asa channeled a young woman on the other side of the globe, a shattered woman with blood on her hands.

“It my fault she dead, and she tell me, ‘Devil bless you,’ and now I can’t even see my moda no more,” said Asa, her eyes focused on something only she could see. “I cursed. I got dis sin on me, and I gon go to de devil straight.”

It’s a bleak tale, to be sure, but there was no obscuring the warmth and energy in this room, a week before opening night.

Eclipsed, the first Broadway show to feature an all-black, all-female creative cast and crew, makes its northern New England premiere this weekend at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. The Dartmouth College production of the play, which tells the story of five women trying to survive amid the horrors of the Second Liberian Civil War, stays true to the Broadway version with a black female cast and director.

“We all know that black women are incredible, and to be able to showcase our power was such an incredible opportunity,” said Haymon, taking a short break between scenes last week. The Brooklyn writer and director, who recently has gained notice for her adaptation of In the Penal Colony and her work on Erotophobia at Fordham University, wasn’t planning to tackle Eclipsed when she was invited to Dartmouth as a guest co-teacher and director.

It turns out she’d underestimated her influence.

During the audition for Sojourners, the play she’d originally planned to bring here, Haymon, who’s originally from Boston, changed her mind.

“There was just an incredible turnout of black women,” she said.

The chance to work with Haymon was a big draw for Stephanie Everett, a theater major from Silver Spring, Md., who plays Wife No. 2, a woman who gains a small measure of freedom from sexual servitude by fighting alongside the rebel army.

“She’s so cool. She gets us,” Everett said. “This has actually been my favorite place to come this term.”

Haymon has a way of getting actors to “take agency” for their performances, Everett said. Rather than telling them what pose or expression or tone to adopt, she encourages them to find their own way through the scenes. She’s gotten to know each actor and personalized her approach to working with each one.

For Haymon, it also was important to dive deep into the material. The cast spent time learning about the history of Liberia, the Liberian wars, the role of the United States in the wars, and the way women took charge of ending the conflict in 2003, then went on to elect Africa’s first female president.

Eclipsed, written by Danai Gurira of The Walking Dead, offers just a narrow slice of this story, focusing on the women who were taken as “wives” by the rebel soldiers. Their existence is dismal, and their options for escaping sexual servitude come at great cost, as the monologue Haymon and Asa were working on last week illustrated.

To help Asa inhabit such a broken character, Haymon coached her to take her time and build an image in her mind that she could clearly envision as she spoke. To craft that image, she suggested she ponder some episode — real or imagined — of standing by and doing nothing in the face of evil. Thinking aloud, Haymon recalled a reading she’d recently seen in New York, in which the main character was in an abusive relationship. Throughout the reading, the woman kept singing the same little song. In the end, though she’d wanted desperately to leave, she stayed in the relationship.

Afterward, the actors told the audience that the reading had an alternate ending. The woman would have left the relationship if just one audience member had started singing along with her.

“I’m so haunted by those fictional characters,” Haymon told Asa.

Eclipsed has a similarly haunting effect. Critics have praised Gurira’s play for honestly depicting the atrocities that took place and continue to take place in war torn countries.

Watching the young women wrestle with whether to remain victims or arm themselves and become part of the war is particularly devastating. There also are moments of humor and beauty as the women bond and look out for one another.

The play has created deep bonds among Haymon and the cast members as well. She said she hopes she’s made a lasting impression.

“I want to show them that it’s possible to be young and black and successful in theater,” Haymon said. “I want them to believe that if this is what they want to do, they can.”

Eclipsed runs Friday night through Sunday, Nov. 11, at Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center for the Arts. Tickets can be purchased by calling 603-646-2422 or visiting hop.dartmouth.edu.

Sarah Earle can be reached at 603-727-3286 or searle@vnews.com.