The women in Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed” have so systematically been stripped of identity that even they have trouble remembering the birth names they were given by mothers and fathers -- parents now lost to the violent years of the Liberian Civil War.
Captive wives of a vicious rebel officer band, they refer to each other only by rank in the order they have come to their commanding officer as a wife: “No. 1,” “No. 2,” “No. 3” and “No. 4.”
“Eclipsed,” though, isn’t a story about women being victimized by the brutal men who surround and imprison them. Rather, it’s an examination of how these women form a fragile community and, in different ways, find the resilience to move forward in fast-changing circumstances.
“Eclipsed” has its New York opening Wednesday night, six years after first debuting in Washington, D.C. Credit two factors for the spotlight cast on this production today: Wife No. 4, known to her companions as “The Girl,” is played by Lupita Nyong’o, the “12 Years a Slave” Oscar-winner who will soon be seen in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
“Eclipsed” is written, meanwhile, by a Zimbabwean-American playwright-actress who is a fierce warrior on one of the nation’s most popular TV shows: Gurira stars as Michonne on AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” Gurira will see another off-Broadway play, “Familiar,” open at Playwrights Horizons in the spring.
At The Public, “Eclipsed” is helmed by Liesl Tommy, who directed the play’s world premiere in 2009 at D.C.’s Wooly Mammoth Theater.
The story unfolds in 2003, during the demise of Charles Taylor’s presidency.
Most of the action takes place in the bullet-ridden commune where wives No. 1 (Saycon Sengbloh) and No. 3 (Pascale Armand, of Broadway’s recent “The Trip to Bountiful”) try to keep their CO from systematically raping the girl played by Nyong’o. (“Eclipsed” is wholly an ensemble piece, even if its Nyong’o whose character has the largest arc.)
Despite the awful surroundings -- there’s never enough food, and it’s impossible to position the radio so it gets a signal, which would allow them news of the outside world, along with some Tupac -- the three women fashion the commune into a home.
The Girl, who was taught to read, gets her hands on a discarded old book, a history of the Clinton presidency, and she regales her companions with its by now-outdated stories. In one of the play’s broadly funny undercurrents, the wives don’t quite see the issue with the idea of Bill Clinton having a “No. 2” in Monica Lewinsky.
As “Eclipsed” moves on, two women come along to interrupt the status quo. Returning from battle, No. 2 (Zainab Jah, as handy with an automatic rifle as Michonne is with a katana) is a fashionable warrior who has taught herself to fight. She tantalizes The Girl with promises of luxuries (pink nail polish!) and the ability to defend herself against abusive men. Nyong’o is drawn to No. 2, but has an innate resistance to violence of any kind, and their scenes are some of the most tense in the play.
There is also a visit from a peacekeeper (Akosua Busia) trying to establish a ceasefire and get these women, imprisoned by warlords, to refugee camps.
Nyong’o displays ferocity and determination, just as we’ve seen on screen. I was equally moved by the predicaments of Sengbloh’s No. 1 and Armand’s No. 3: The former has grown old and lost the interest of her captor -- what will happen to her? The latter is pregnant as the play begins, and will face choices that impact two lives.
The peace movement started by women in Liberia brought an end to the country’s second civil war in 2003, and “Eclipsed” takes us up to this time. But Gurira only uses these large-scale events as a backdrop. She’s written a much more personal examination of the choices a small few had to make as the walls came tumbling down. It’s a must-see.
“Eclipsed,” through Nov. 29 at The Public Theater’s LuEsther Hall, 425 Lafayette St. Tickets: $60-$110. Call 212-967-7555.