Zimbabwean actress and playwright a hit in the US

WASHINGTON, US – It was a 2003 news story about an extraordinary group of Liberian soldiers — a photograph, really — that set in motion Zimbabwean actress and playwright Danai Gurira's new play, "Eclipsed."

"There were these women who were funkily clad, and their hair was all done, and they were carrying AK-47s," says Gurira, a hint of incredulity in her voice.

In the West African nation of Liberia, a 14-year civil war under President Charles Taylor had cultivated a generation of fighters — boys and young men — who raped and slaughtered women and children. Spurred by the relentless assaults, some women became strutting, gun-toting warriors themselves. Among the most well-known was a fiery 22-year-old called Black Diamond.

"I was so struck by them, I knew that I would be part of their stories being told," says Gurira, 31, for whom the story resonated because she herself grew up in Zimbabwe.

First, however, there were other orders of business. She would star with Nikkole Salter in "In the Continuum," their acclaimed off-Broadway HIV/AIDS dramedy (which was staged at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in 2006). Then she snagged a role in the movie "The Visitor."

But the whole time, the women of Liberia were calling.

In 2007, Gurira finally traveled there to lay the groundwork for the play, which begins a run Monday at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. (Gurira spoke by phone from Los Angeles, where she is preparing another staging of "Eclipsed" next month in nearby Culver City. She is not acting in either production.)

The play follows the snatched wives of a Liberian officer as they manage to eke out some semblance of domesticity — something not unlike family — despite their dire circumstances. But when an aid worker and a female soldier enter their lives, the women begin to revive their hopes for escape and a future.

Nearly all the characters are based in part on the women Gurira met and interviewed abroad, including survivors of rape and war, as well as those women who came to their defense.

" ‘Eclipsed’ is really just trying to give a face and voice for women in war," she says. "So a Western audience walks in and out of the theater, and these women — their voices — resonate."

In a blog she kept during her trip to Liberia, Gurira wrote of one grueling interview: "It was with her where I had commenced making promises, promises that to this moment I have no idea how I am going to keep."  

"It felt tricky sometimes asking the questions I had to ask," she says now. "These women said, ‘Thank you, no one has ever asked me what happened to me.’ These women, they want to say, ‘These things happened to me.’

The captive wives of a Liberian rebel officer form a hardscrabble sisterhood, their lives set on a nightmarish detour by civil war.  With the arrival of a new girl who can read – and the return of an old one who can kill – their possibilities are quickly transformed.  Drawing on reserves of wit and compassion, these defiant survivors ask: when the fog of battle lifts, could a different destiny emerge?

"Danai Gurira demonstrated her remarkable talent as both an actor and playwright with In the Continuum, her award-winning hit (created with Nikkole Salter) that came to Woolly Mammoth in 2006.

With Eclipsed, Danai steps onto a bigger canvas, painting a vivid portrait of five young Liberian women whose lives are enmeshed in civil war. (Washington Post)