Zimbabwean US based film writer gate-crushes big stage

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

At a rebel base in Liberia commanding officer sit around their dilapidated shelter.

HELENA: How long you been in for?

BESSIE: Long time. Long, long time. They no let me go let me go after the 4th World War. They’ve been keeping me for years.

HELENA: Since you was how old then?

BESSIE: No.

HELENA: For 10 years, 12 years, 15 years…

BESSIE: 10, 15, 10 years.

HELENA: And how many years you got left?

BESSIE: Lots of them.

HELENA: What that mean?

BESSIE: It mean she old. You should know how many I got (unintelligible). I told you a long time ago.

LUDDEN: Helena, Bessie, and the new girl are characters in Danai Gurira’s new play "Eclipsed" which premiered this week at the Woolly Mammoth Theater here in Washington, D.C.

Ms. Guiria, who’s also an actress was born in the U.S. but raised in Zimbabwe where her parents are from. She’d never been to Liberia before heading there in 2007 to research this play, and she joins me now in the studio.

Welcome to you.

Mr. DANAI GUIRIA (Actress, playwright, author of "Eclipsed "): Thank you.

LUDDEN: I understand that it was a photograph that inspired this play.

Ms. GUIRIA: Yes. I was in my final year of grad school in NYU, in acting actually, and my professor, who knew that I was very passionate about telling African women stories, gave me a New York Times that had a picture of Black Diamond and her female rebel fighting unit.

LUDDEN: She was a rebel fighter herself?

Ms. GUIRIA: She was, and she became very well-known, somewhat, in the Western press in 2003. And I had never come across anything about the war and the rebel factions. I didn’t know anything about women fighters in African wars. I was from a very different part of the continent. And just to see these women standing there, you know, in their jeans and you know, fashionable tops and their hair is all done and they’re all carrying AK47’s was just an image I couldn’t get out of my head and I knew one day I’d have to try and get behind those eyes and try and tell their story.

LUDDEN: Well, your story actually includes four wives of this rebel commander. In the first scene we just heard, we hear from Helena, who’s wife number one. She’s in charge. Bessie is wife number three. She’s pregnant by this commander. The new girl has just arrived. Wife number two, tell us about her.

Ms. GUIRIA: Wife number two is definitely manifestation or a personhood that talks about the issues of turning into a rebel fighter. It really, the whole play really grapples with choices that different women make in a terrain that is void of real choices, and a terrain that’s not of their making.

LUDDEN: They have been captured.

Ms. GUIRIA: They’re all abductees.

LUDDEN: They are being held by this commander. They’re essentially sex slaves.

Ms. GUIRIA: Essentially, and that was a very real experience for many Liberian women during the conflict.

LUDDEN: And wife number two has decided to kind of better herself by picking up a gun.

Ms. GUIRIA: Yeah. I mean there are many different reasons why women became rebel fighters. And honestly, if I were to – faced with those choices, I figure I might’ve become one myself. I think it’s all about geography and I think that’s something I’m trying to pick at, is that the only thing that’s different from us from them is geography. I truly believe that.

LUDDEN: Now these women are actually based on real people that you met when you went to Liberia to research. Is that correct?

Ms. GUIRIA: Yes. I mean no one can point to that, to a person on that stage and say that’s specifically so and so. It’s really a combination of different aspects of research.

LUDDEN: And did you actually go and meet with people who had been held and married to rebel commanders and…

Ms. GUIRIA: Yes. Yes. I met many women who – I did several interviews with women who had been captured, who were held for many years, who where rebel officers quote/unquote, "wives." Yeah, I met many women who’d been through that and who said they do things I couldn’t imagine.

LUDDEN: Was it hard to get them to talk?

Ms. GUIRIA: Well actually I had a lot of help. There was a woman who somewhat inspired the other character in the play, Rita, who is a mover and shaker.

LUDDEN: This is the peace activist?

Ms. GUIRIA: Yeah. She’s really a mover and shaker in Liberia, and she and me -we just really hit it off and so she connected me with women who I could interview who’d been through the war and been through really harrowing experiences.

And some of them actually, you know, because I would always say at the end and, and at the end of it like is there anything you want of me or ask of me or anything? And some of them would say, thank you, I’ve never had the opportunity to speak about what happened to me. No one’s ever asked me. And that always really got me.

LUDDEN: Tell me more about the character Rita – she’s a peace activist, she enters in about midway through the play – and she kind of shakes things up for these women.

Ms. GUIRIA: Yeah. When I got to Liberia, I’d done a lot of research before I got there, but I had not come across anything about this large womens’ peace movement.

LUDDEN: And their Liberian. They not Westerners or is it a mix?

Ms. GUIRIA: No, no. They’re Liberian. Liberian women who were fed up with what was happening to themselves, to their children, to their generation; and they said we have to do something about it, because as they say in "Pray the Devil Back to Hell" – which is now a famous documentary about these women – you know, as she said, you know, men either by commission or omission, were guilty of a lot was what was happening. So it was really – it was very much a woman’s peace movement that did amazing things too, and courageous things.

Going and talking to these men, these warlords in many different circumstances and situations, and going into the bush and having them to come to there house and talking them down and getting them to put down their guns and doing, getting amazing things done.

And they were so relentless in that. And I met women who would tell me about how they would just walk into the bush and talk rebel soldiers out of their guns, and encourage them to look at school and to think about their future, because their identities had been snatched away from them because of the vicious nature of what was occurring during their youth.

LUDDEN: And why did they think that they were able to do that? I mean was it just the force of attitude, because it must have been frightening – and why would these rebel guys listen to them.

Ms. GUIRIA: I know. It’s amazing and I asked this one lady who’s quite featured in the "Pray the Devil Back to Hell," who was the woman who first inspired me -and I knew I had to write Rita into the story once I met her. And I asked her. I said how in the world did you do that? She said we just didn’t think about it. If we thought about it too hard we probably would’ve been paralyzed with fear. But we just didn’t think about it. We just did it.

And I was amazed. I mean they just, they were really fearless. And as a result, there was something that is even said by some of these warlords when these women organized meetings when they would bring the warlords together to try and negotiate with them, and they’d say you know; when your mother calls you must answer. So these women started to become these figures…

LUDDEN: The mother.

Ms. GUIRIA: The mother that they you know, they’d been so disconnected from familial understanding.

LUDDEN: Mm-hmm. That’s the theme of your play here; people are really they’ve been turned away from their families. They’ve almost lost their identity.

Ms. GUIRIA: Yes, and that’s something I kept coming across as – even though it was five years later – I kept coming across that as a story of people being torn away from each other or being – having to run, run, run, run, run – that theme of having to run, being completely displaced.

LUDDEN: The real life story of Liberia’s civil war seems to, at this point, I mean, have something of a happy ending. We have Charles Taylor, the former president on trial for war crimes now. We have Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf elected as the continent’s only female head of state.

Ms. GUIRIA: Mm-hmm.

LUDDEN: I mean does it make you hopeful?

Ms. GUIRIA: It does. And even the women, the women in this play make me hopeful in many ways. They go through harrowing things but they retain their humanity. They retain their agency. They retain their desire to move forward. So absolutely, the culmination of what these women have done for it to result in Ellen, you know, being the president right now. It’s amazing and you can see it through what the peace women did. You can see it through how women who went through awful experiences still wanted to go forward, and to go back to school, and to learn things that they had been stripped from from childhood.

LUDDEN: You grew up in Zimbabwe, the other side of the continent, as you pointed out.

Ms. GUIRIA: Right.

LUDDEN: It used to be one of Africa’s success story and in recent years we’ve really watched it just collapse. It’s crisis – in a crisis situation right now. I understand that this is the subject of your next play.

Ms. GUIRIA: Well, my next play, I don’t think it’s quite quoted well in my bio. It’s more – we’re really just looking at what the voices of Zimbabwean’s are saying. That’s the key thing I’m doing for the next piece is – the Diaspora, there’s a massive Diaspora. You know, what their thoughts are about being here, being in Europe, being in South Africa. You know, there’s this whole thing that goes along with being a Zimbabwean outside of Zimbabwe, and really let that voice be heard and really explore it.

And I’m not sure what this play’s going to look like. I’m working on it with a fellow Zimbabwean who’s based in London. We’re not sure what it’s going to look like. We’re doing interviews. We’re talking to people. We’re talking to people from every aspect, from every perspective, and…

LUDDEN: So it may not be set in Zimbabwe at all?

Ms. GUIRIA: I’m not sure. It might be set in a few places. You know, right now it’s – the structure of it is not certain. But I’m really going to allow my countrymen to stir my creative spirit into what it needs to be, and I’m just not sure right now. I just want to get the voice.

LUDDEN: Danai Gurira, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. GUIRIA: No, thanks for having me.

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LUDDEN: Playwright Danai Gurira is the author of "Eclipsed." It’s currently on stage here in Washington and it will also have performances later this fall in Los Angeles and New Haven, Connecticut.

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LUDDEN: And that’s our program for today. I’m Jennifer Ludden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Let’s talk more tomorrow. (National Public Radio)