Audiences expect challenging productions from the Unicorn Theatre, whose mission is to produce "thought-provoking plays" that "illuminate social issues." Still, Danai Gurira's Eclipsed might require playgoers to work harder than they're used to.
Set in the camp of a Liberian warlord (whom the audience never sees), the play centers on four of his captive wives. Speaking in thick African-English accents, these four women, and a fifth who visits from outside, embody various responses to the trauma of war.
"It’s exactly the kind of play I would look for: It’s about persecution and injustice," says the Unicorn's producing artistic director, Cynthia Levin, who directs the play herself. She says she's always on the lookout for plays written from an African-American female point of view, which aren't especially easy to find.
Levin was familiar with playwright Gurira's work as an actress on "The Walking Dead," where she plays Michonne.
"She’s fierce, and she found this group of warriors in Liberia, and it started her on a path to write a play because she never knew about them," Levin says. "These women in Liberia are a product of war. The army comes in and (warriors) murder all the men and kidnap all the women and force them to be 'wives' of the guerilla army. And they’re taken when they’re 10 or 12 years old, so this is all they know. The whole thing fascinated me."
Gurira's writing is "brilliant," Levin says.
"She is unsentimental and fair. Everybody always wants a happy ending to every story, and there’s rarely a happy ending, so I find that dishonest most of the time," Levin says.
She was intrigued by the potential for showing how women take care of each other in a situation where missteps could get them hurt or killed, and how they find sisterhood and solace.
"So the moments we can find what I would consider joy in this circumstance," she says, "were really kind of glorious."
She was also happy, she says, "to give five incredible African-American women a chance to be on stage together, which rarely happens in a drama. This is not a musical. Nobody’s dancing."
Eclipsed is the Unicorn's first production with an all-female cast — Dianne Yvette, Ashley Kennedy, Teisha M. Bankston, Njeri Mungai and Amber A. McKinnon.
It's also the first with an all-female crew, with one exception: dialect coach Scott Stackhouse, an assistant professor of voice at the UMKC Theatre department.
"It was an inordinate amount of work and time that we had to spend on the dialect," Levin says. "We've done plays with Irish accents, British accents, cockney. We have access to those dialects – we can turn on the television, watch a movie, and it's easier to study. The African dialects are much more difficult to find."
Gurira wrote the Liberian dialect into the text of the play, Levin notes, but Stackhouse still had to study it for months before the production, watching YouTube videos and documentaries and putting together rules for the cast.
"We would spend hours with him at least once a week, going over words and pronunciations, and the rhythms of the lines," she says, "because you don’t want to sound Midwestern and we do. We would try to sound realistic, but then we would get to the point where (I'd have to say) 'Now I can’t understand you.' So we would have to go back and Americanize it just a bit."
As a native of Kenya, cast member Mungai (a UMKC student making her professional debut) was able to help some, Levin says, but Kenya is on the opposite African coast from Liberia, so Mungai had to learn the dialect too. Levin says Stackhouse gave them advice that works for a play with any kind of dialect: Over-enunciate everything in the first scene, so the audience's ears can get attuned to the language.
Levin was able to see how this worked during an audience talk-back after one performance.
"One of the audience members said, 'It seemed like you all got better with the dialect as the play went on.' I said, 'That's a great observation, but you got better.' It does take work for an audience to see, hear, taste, smell, anything different from what you’re used to," she says.
That’s "the glory, the wonder, the excitement of theater," Levin says. "That we can take you somewhere else."
But Eclipsed is not an easy place to be. Besides requiring audiences to listen harder than they usually do, it might also force them to wonder whether they would make the same choices as the characters, each of whom responds to her situation in a different way.
"We often can put ourselves in a 'What if?' situation: 'If I was in that situation I would do this,'" Levin says. "The difference here is, we have no idea what we would do in that circumstance. It's being a prisoner of war, but for women it’s different because it's always going to be sexualized in some horrible, terrible way. Also, these are young women, not women who have experience and know what it’s like to live any other way, so they have no frame of reference. What I want to do, or you want to do, or what that actor might want to do is very different from what is truthful for the character."
But Levin has clearly heard the question more than once: Why would audience members want to subject themselves to these types of painful experiences?
"I always go back to people’s definition of the word entertainment," Levin says. "People say, 'I don’t want to be depressed, I want to forget my troubles.' I don’t know what that means to forget your troubles. But I don’t find it depressing, and yes, it is intense — as any serious subject might be. It’s a chance to learn about something that has gone on recently, that is still going on in other parts of the world, and how other people live with that and react to that."
Without giving away the ending, she adds, "I will just say: No one dies. They’re there to survive and we’re watching them. That’s a wonderful glorious thing."
Eclipsed, through April 2 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 64111, 816-531-7529.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.