Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Coming up for air...

...for a hot minute. I was fortunate to get one of the last 7 tickets to Obie-award winning Zimbabwean American actor/playwright Danai Gurira's Eclipsed, produced this February as part of the In-Festival 2009 at McCarter Theatre on Princeton University's campus. Some folks may be familiar with Gurira from Tom McCarthy's recent film, The Visitor (2007), where she plays Zainab, the Senegalese artist girlfriend of a Syrian musician (Haaz Sleiman) who is detained by immigration, both characters are in the US illegally. Zainab is an internal character as compared to her more outgoing boyfriend, still Gurira plays her in a way that shows her complexity--her guardedness, her intelligence, and wondrously her strength and then her sense of unmoored loss that surprises us because her hard-won guardedness seemed to ground the more spontaneous and life-embracing Tarek, but it becomes apparent that there's more balance in the relationship than was immediately obvious, Gurira communicates this in a scene not with Tarek, but in her first meeting with his mother (Hiam Abbass).

But I digress, Eclipsed knocked me out. The play focuses on the lives of five women during the last year of the Liberia's Second Civil War. The characters are based on multiple interviews Gurira conducted with Liberian women in 2007 while she was there on a TCG New Generations Grant in November of 2008. When she asked one interview subject "what she felt must be included in a story about Liberian women during this time. Without hesitation she said 'Rape'. That was the main thing. You were either fearful of that most of all or living in its devastating aftermath." Gurira directly references the vulnerability of having a vagina: "I remembered Wanda Sykes talking about how much better life would be for a woman if the vagina were detachable. If sometimes we could hide it or leave it at home." The play is about more than that violation, it centers on the resiliency of these women, facing impossible choices and how war effectively devastates those caught up in it physically, emotionally, economically, psychologically, and intellectually: women dealing with the aftermath of rape, of children barely out of "knee pants" and barrettes lost to forced military conscription, women who lost opportunity to attend school, and as a result are illiterate and have grave difficulty being economically self-sufficient. But I'm not really doing it justice. It's focus is on women, as Gurira is committed to telling the stories of African women. Still the story deals with our common humanity and how complex maintaining it in times of extreme struggle can be.

Update 2/12/09 : MacArthur Award winning playwright Lynn Nottage has just opened her play, Ruined, about women living during the current war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where similar to Liberia rape has become a tool of war. According to an NPR profile of the play Nottage and her director started work on this project several years ago and went to neighboring Uganda which shares a border with the Congo to interview women affected by the war, and again the key issue was rape and its aftermath both physical and emotional. You can hear/read the NPR story here. Ruined is playing off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club you can see scenes from the play and an interview with Lynn Nottage about writing the play here.

I just finished Kirsten Dinnall Hoyte's novel Black Marks (Akashic Books, 2006) which I believe I found indirectly through Reggie H.'s Noctuary. I just felt called to track down this book, so I did. Probably what got me was its focus on memory. The protagonist is Georgette, a young woman of Jamaican and African American descent who has lost her memory and is attempting to piece together her life from assorted artifacts. The novel moves around in time and voice. Georgette's voice and life come into greater and lesser focus depending on when in her history the narrative takes place and her corresponding psychological state. What I really appreciate is that Hoyte doesn't create any easy A + B = C equations when it comes to Georgette's troubled emotional terrain. There are gaps in her memory, but also gaps in her stability, plenty of instances of protective silences, passive aggressive destructive behavior, and a history (and histories) at odds with itself, the contradictions of human beings and within that powerful human aggregate, family, are all in effect here. All through one is aware of Hoyte's skill and intelligence as a writer. Nothing is simple in this novel, but that's never expressed in a belabored or self-conscious manner. I almost read this whole novel in one day, and yeah, I shoulda/coulda been doing a bunch of other work. But I couldn't put it down.

In preparation for the play's run, the McCarter Theatre put a number of resources online for people to educate themselves about various subjects pertinent to the work: Liberian History, War and Sexual Violence, and the playwright Danai Gurira and her creative process.
Danai Gurira, Liberian Journals Part I, Part II, Part III
Essential Knowledge: Women, War and Sexual Violence in Liberia (and Other Conflict Zones) by Paula Alekson
Contemporary Liberian History by Patrick McKelvey
• A collection of Articles About Liberia by Partick McKelvey
Interview with Danai Gurira, by Carrie Hughes

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