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A CurtainUp Connecticut Review
Helena (Stacey Sargeant) Number 1, has been a wife the longest and rules the hut she shares with CO's other women: pregnant Bessie (Pascale Armand) who is Number 3, and the latest addition known only as The Girl, Number 4 (Adepero Oduye), a sensitive, "book-learned" woman recently brutalized by the CO. The Girl helps the women pass time by reading to them from a book about the life of President Bill Clinton. The reading sessions contain most of the play's humor, as the women idolize America's "big man" with a Number One wife Hillary and Number 2, Monica Lewinsky. In fact, Helena is so impressed with Clinton, she names her baby after him.
When Maima, Number 2 (Zainab Jah), who left to become a soldier, returns, the Girl follows her to escape life in the hut. Her soldier's gun, which the Girl initially believes will keep her safe, instead becomes an instrument of horror as she succumbs to the temptation of its power. Soon she finds herself reciting mindless rebel doctrine, killing villagers and rounding up their women for the flesh-hungry soldiers. She barely resembles the innocent girl who reminded peace worker Rita (Shona Tucker) of the daughter stolen from her. It's Rita who urges the women to remember their families and their given names so they will have some part of themselves left when the war ends.
Gurira's work is an interesting exploration of the victims of Liberia's war and was written in partnership with Princeton's McCarter Theatre Center as the result of a grant which allowed her to travel to Africa and interview survivors. The cast, under the direction of Liesl Tommy, produces some great ensemble acting against German Cardenas's stark hut and bush set lighted by Marcus Doshi. Music and sounds by Broken Chord Collective help enhance the mood.
Though the drama is compelling, the violence of war and rape feels somehow removed from the experience. We don't need to see more of it, necessarily, but it's hard to feel the depth of what the women are experiencing, the total eclipse of their persons without having more exposure to their lives before they disappear. They seem too well adjusted, not very afraid and not harmed or much disturbed by their sexual encounters with CO, except that they do wash their private areas following each rape. In addition there are times when it is difficult to decipher the heavily-accented dialogue (despite Beth McGuire's coaching) though I had the advantage of being there the day open captioning offered on a digital screen on the stage was provided for this run.