What’s most impressive about the Broadway production of Eclipsed, Danai Gurira’s forceful drama about the effect of war on five women in Liberia, is that it is opening on Broadway at all. This has much to do with Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o’s decision to portray a girl we first see hiding under a tub.
Eclipsed author Gurira, while best known for her role as Michonne in The Walking Dead, has been writing plays for more than a decade. (Her play Familiar is also currently running, at Playwrights Horizons.) Eclipsed was produced at Woolly Mammoth in 2009, with a cast that included Uzo Aduba, who has since gained fame as Crazy Eyes in the series “Orange Is the New Black.” It was also produced that year at the Yale Rep – with a cast that included an understudy who was then a student at the Yale School of Drama named Lupita Nyong’o.
After winning the Academy Award for her role in 12 Years a Slave, the Public Theater reportedly contacted Nyong’o with scripts they hoped might lure her to the stage. She wasn’t interested in the scripts they sent her, but she told them she wanted to do Eclipsed. “I was starved for stories about people like me,” she’s said.
Eclipsed now becomes part of a Broadway season that has been unusually inclusive. Its playwright was raised in Zimbabwe, its all-female cast is entirely African-American (and mostly African-born; Nyong’o, born in Mexico City, was raised in Kenya.) The play’s woman director Liesl Tommy was born in South Africa, and a woman African-American producer Alia Jones Harvey with her black business partner Stephen C. Byrd made the decision to transfer this show after its two-month run late last year at the Public.
It might have been satisfying enough just to see this passion project make it to a commercial stage. But what could easily have been a noble, grim and largely unwatchable testament to man’s inhumanity towards woman in wartime turns out to be a well-acted ensemble piece and a thought-provoking drama that is surprisingly vibrant, and sometimes even whimsical.
It is 2003, and Nyong’o plays a Liberian teenager who’s never given a name; she is just “The Girl,” one of the many signs of the degradation of women during the brutal and chaotic second Liberian Civil War. She wandered into a bullet-riddled shelter that serves as the home of Wife Number 1 (Saycon Sengbloh) and Wife Number 3 (Pascale Armand), who were kidnapped by the (never seen) “husband” whom they call CO, for commandant, a rebel warlord, who has kept them for years to service him sexually. The slightly older women hide the girl so that she can avoid the same fate. But it doesn’t work, and The Girl is turned into Wife Number 4.
Two more characters enter the picture, each representing other choices besides being under the “protection” and exploitation of the warlord. The former Wife Number 2, whose real name long ago was Maima (Zainab Jah), has become a woman warrior who’s named herself Disgruntled, and carries an AK-47 rifle slung over her shoulder. The second, Rita (Akosua Busia), is dressed all in white and is a member of the network of women peacemakers agitating to stop the killing. As we are told in an informative two-page timeline inserted into the program, all of these characters are based in fact, e.g.: In April of 2003, we’re told, and “at least 600 women [became rebel soldiers] some of whom [were] among the rebel army’s highest ranking and most ruthless fighters” and “hundreds of women dressed in white gather in Monrovia chanting peace slogans” which led to peace talks. (Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace eventually brought the war to an end.)
Nyong’o does a stellar job showing us how the girl changes as she makes her choices. But Eclipsed is not a star vehicle; the other performers are terrific in creating believable and complex individuals who are not just victims, and not just sufferers — and neither round-the-clock noble nor grim. Pascale Armand pulls off much of the humor, including a hilarious shtick involving the discovery among the loot the CO brings them of a biography of Bill Clinton.
The design team persuasively recreates the time and place with the costumes, set and lighting, adding to the overall sense of authenticity. There is a price paid for some of the play’s authenticity, however – the dialect (aided by dialect coach Beth McGuire) might make some of the dialogue unclear.
Still, there is at least one way that pop culture fans are sure to feel at home. The playwright has told interviewers that Michonne, the zombie-fighting character that she plays in The Walking Dead, was in part based on the character of Maima, the rifle-bearing woman warrior she had conjured up for Eclipsed.
Eclipsed is on stage at the Golden Theater (252 West 45th Street, New York, N.Y. 10036, between Broadway and 8th Avenue) through June 19, 2016. Tickets and details
Eclipsed Written by Danai Gurira .Directed by Liesl Tommy, scenic and costume design by Clint Ramos, lighting design by Jennifer Schriever, original music and sound design by Broken Chord,
Featuring Pascale Armand as Bessie, Akosua Busia as Rita, Zainab Jah as Maima, Lupita Nyong’o as Girl and Saycon Sengbloh as Helena. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell