How should America's theater community respond to humanitarian crises on the other side of the planet? One obvious answer: Just like the rest of us. They can donate to relief agencies, pressure political leaders, stay informed—and, especially since so much of our political art consists of smug, self-righteous choir preaching, leave it at that.
But with musicalized comic books claiming an increasing share of critical and audience attention, it's hard to fault theater companies that draw focus to pressing global issues. So kudos to TimeLine and Northlight for presenting recent plays that tackle two of Africa's bloodiest conflicts, the Liberian and Sudanese civil wars—topics on no one's audience-development list.
That said, Northlight's Eclipsed and TimeLine's In Darfur don't have a lot other than topicality and a continent in common. The differences between them make one fact plain: the harder a playwright tries to lecture the audience on the geopolitics behind a catastrophic world event, the smaller the result is likely to seem. Conversely, the more intimate the approach, the bigger the potential bang.
In Darfur by Winter Miller is set in a relief camp in 2004, during the Khartoum government's murderous campaign against the primarily black, non-Muslim population of southern Sudan. Carlos, an American doctor, spends his days patching up survivors and risking reprisal by documenting atrocities. Maryka, a New York Times reporter desperate to put Darfur on the front page, tries to cajole and seduce him into telling his story, barely mindful of the dire consequences that might befall him and his patients if he's so much as seen talking to her. Meanwhile, a Sudanese woman with a bloody abdomen hobbles around the stage, portraying anonymous victimhood.
The politics of the first half of the play are distasteful, privileging the travails of the inconvenienced Americans, who dabble in a bit of romantic intrigue over candlelight and contraband Scotch. Their discussions—coupled with Maryka's fervent efforts to sell her dubious editor on Sudan—provide a tin-eared, expositional review of the crisis. Miller seems to think that a quick lesson in modern African history will somehow make genocide more real to her audience.
It's only later, when Miller finally gives that anonymous Sudanese victim a name and moves her to the center of things, that In Darfur starts to feel true—and horrifically so, thanks to Mildred Marie Langford's riveting performance as Hawa, a refugee who contemplates telling Maryka her story at the possible cost of her life. The rest of the cast is just as strong, and director Nick Bowling wastes hardly a second of stage time. But In Darfur should be Hawa's from the start.
Playwright Danai Gurira makes almost no attempt to explain the whys and wherefores of Liberia's civil war in Eclipsed, which unfolds in 2003, during the final months of that two-decade conflict. She concentrates instead on three women stuck in a rural military compound. Kept as "wives" of a rebel warlord, they spend most of their time waiting around until he summons one of them for his sexual pleasure.
Gurira offers little action early on, focusing instead on how the women construct and control their limited domestic space. They deploy what little power they have, struggle to maintain some sense of normalcy, and—most important—take on the job of introducing an orphaned 15-year-old girl to the warlord so that she might become another wife rather than end up at a neighboring encampment where soldiers take turns with any woman they want.
Although the dramatic stakes sometimes sag during the first act, Gurira compellingly articulates the conditions that leave these women facing nothing but terrible choices. And its comparative placidity provides a powerful contrast to the second act, when the intervention of two outside women nearly destroys the wives' haven—if one can call a holding tank for systematic rape a haven—and leads to a rapid, harrowing escalation of violence. As the available options become more and more unconscionable, Gurira exposes parts of the human soul few dare to acknowledge.
Gurira grounds Eclipsed in the specifics of Liberia's civil war, but her ultimate subject is the larger war on women's sexuality. After all, if social and legal prohibitions against sexual violence suddenly vanished in Chicago the way they did in Liberia, our town might look a lot like a rebel army camp. Infused with rigorous feminist thinking and amplified through unsparing stagecraft, Gurira's tiny, tightly focused story achieves an epic scope. Director Hallie Gordon and her astonishing cast make practically every moment of the play vital, exuberant, and devastatingly true.