I recently saw a profoundly powerful play called Eclipsed and left the theater deep in thought. I had been exposed to something I’d heard about but never truly tried to visualize. Eclipsed enlightened me to a stark reality that was very different from mine.
Written by a woman (Danai Gurira), directed by a woman (Liesl Tommy), and exclusively acted by women (Pascale Armand, Akosua Busia, Zainab Jah, Lupita Nyong’o, and Stacey Sargeant), the plotline of Eclipsed is the antithesis of trivial. The subject matter takes the audience to Liberia at a time when the internal strife of civil war was killing many daily. The story focuses on the four “wives” of a warlord and another woman who (as part of a female faction) is petitioning for peace.
During the course of the play, we watch as the woman interact with each other and are acted upon by exterior (yet invisible to the audience) forces—namely being forced to serve and sexually satisfy the commanding officer they are involuntary wives to and the bloodshed that is spreading across their country like gangrene.
One of the wives ends up pregnant. Two of them decide to fight in the conflict in the hopes that having a lethal weapon will empower and protect them from unwanted sexual advances. One wife views herself (particularly since she is “wife number one”) as the protector of the most vulnerable.
Danai’s play is so beautifully compelling that it made me want to see more of anything else members of the cast had been in. I quickly realized that the most obvious option was to finally see 12 Years a Slave, especially considering Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar for her work in that film. I wanted to compare and contrast her performance in the play with that of the movie. But when it comes to watching 12 Years a Slave, I have been a bit unwilling.
I am confident that 12 Years a Slave is a well-made movie. I have heard nothing but praise for it. I’ve had more than one opportunity to see this film—in the theater and then on HBO Go, but I’ve procrastinated. Honestly, I’m a bit afraid to see it. As I only somewhat jokingly said to the friends who accompanied me to Eclipsed, I feel as though I need to have a therapist on standby before I watch a movie that I know will move me so dramatically. I am afraid to expose my emotions to such a tragic (and true) tale. I expect it to wrench my heart and shatter my happiness. I anticipate weeping and feeling weighed down by the story’s realism.
I’m not alone. I’ve talked about seeing (or not seeing) 12 Years a Slave with a number of my friends, and many of them (especially the black ones) have admitted to having the same hesitation. In addition to fear, I feel a bit of guilt. What a wimp I am to be so fearful of a movie. I am depriving myself of a great film (according to those who have seen it). I am closing my ears to a harrowing tale that took great bravery to live and to tell. I am withholding my contribution to the film’s profits and thereby also not helping more movies like it to be made. And I do want to see more films like this in theaters. Hollywood is still rather homogenous.
I think it is incredibly important that more minority stories are told—whether through movies, plays, books, or television. Whatever the hegemonic discourse is, I want to hear more from those whose realities contradict it. The majority must loose its exclusive power to define anyone else’s reality or history. We will all be better off if we hear more from a diverse range of people of color, women, those with different levels of ability, those from other regions and countries—anyone who for any reason sees or experiences the world differently. We must not silence the minority or the disenfranchised. Let’s let everyone speak for her-/himself. That’s the only way the whole story of humanity will be accurate.
If I really believe in everyone’s story being told, how can I continue to avoid this one? Am I a wimp? Probably. People lived the hardships depicted in 12 Years a Slave, and I’m afraid to visit them cinematically. Do I really need to worry that what others literally survived will crack me into pieces as I watch from the comfort of my own couch? Am I not emotionally strong enough to be an audience member? Do I not possess enough resilience to witness what they endured physically? Can I not handle a story when so many others had (and still have) to bear up and live it daily?
I don’t want to be such a wimp or keep my head in the sand. If it’s important that stories are told, it’s equally important that they’re seen and heard. I don’t want to be too afraid in the safety of my own home to witness what so many of my ancestors lived through. Each person’s story is a lesson about the world. So, I think I’ll assemble some friends (perhaps with some wine and comforting foods), open my eyes, breathe deeply, and take a look.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” ~ James Baldwin