A Review by Jaye Austin Williams
In early 2003, a collective dramatic gesture, starting in the United States as a correspondence between two actresses, spread like a brush fire around the world. Called "The Lysistrata Project," theatre companies hosted 750 staged readings in 49 countries of the Aristophanes satire. The phenomenon was in protest of the war in Iraq.
Such collective gestures by members of the artistic community are not new, of course. They are, in fact, emblematic of the intertwining of art and socio-politics which harbors an impulse of nobility; namely, an articulation of resistance against wrongs in the hope that it will be to some positive effect. The Lysistrata Project utilized a play from antiquity about women galvanizing in protest against men’s propensity for conflict by withholding sex, deploying the one gambit sure to give men pause no matter how entrenched they may be in their antagonistic endeavors.
Aristophanes’ text has piqued rigorous debate about whether or not it is a feminist tract, given that its protagonist would be hard-pressed, in any real-life sense, to galvanize women on so grand a scale, and appears to be supremely content with the return to the status quo so long as the men cease and desist from their warring.
Still, The Lysistrata Project’s use of this fictitious, satirical gesture by a Greek male author and comedic master makes sense 16 centuries later.
But is there a relationship between that global gesture and one staged in the same year, amidst a theatre of war all too real, by Black women in a country situated on the west coast of Africa? For these women, the stakes were perilously high. Pathos rather than comedy was the framework surrounding the mortal risk they undertook. Yet their gesture resided curiously outside the "global" purview of "The Lysistrata Project."
Such was the action orchestrated by Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian social worker, one of a constellation of Liberian women whose poised, earnest and eloquent retrospective testimonies are captured by executive producers Gini Reticker and Abigail Disney in their documentary film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell.
The film, initially released in the Spring of 2008 at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, documents a collective testament in response to the cumulative effects of the Civil War that erupted in Liberia in 1989. Its abject and divisive toll on the citizens of Liberia was so great that the women were moved to risk their lives in demanding the war’s cessation.
Staging a Platform for Peace
Responding to the rapes of women and children, fast-rising cost of bulgur wheat, diminished access to water and other basic resources under Liberian President Charles Taylor’s regime, the women look to the Biblical story of Esther as their inspiration. Dressed in white to signify peace, and with a big banner that reads "THE WOMEN OF LIBERIA WANT PEACE NOW," women, eventually reaching thousands, decide to camp out at the fish market every day. While they are there, Taylor’s convoy passes by, slowing down to survey the women. Loved ones worry for the women’s safety.
The women insist that the warring parties participate in peace talks. Taylor finally meets with the presidents of South Africa and Nigeria and others at a peace summit in Ghana. In a surprise move, Taylor is charged with crimes against humanity and flees. (Taylor is now involved in an ongoing trial at The Hague. ) Faced with persistent destabilization in Liberia, the women continue to speak out until the international community acts and a transitional government is established.
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