“Eclipsed”—with Lupita Nyong’o starring as one of a Liberian warlord’s captive wives—is the second play by actress-writer Danai Gurira to open on a New York stage, inside of a week. The other is “Familiar,” at Playwrights Horizons.
“Eclipsed” is a colorful and fiery drama, and one that no doubt stands bracingly apart from ordinary Broadway fare. But there’s more here than just that.
The juxtaposition of the two openings allows us an opportunity to marvel at the modern roles the “Walking Dead” star is creating for women, and to note a unique moment: “Eclipsed” marks the first time a Broadway cast, director and playwright are all female.
The drama, directed by Cape Town-native Liesl Tommy, bowed last fall at The Public and was quickly pegged for a transfer. It’s just opened at the Golden Theatre. There are scenes, both acrobatic and antagonistic, that have clearly become more second-nature for the actors in the intervening months, lending "Eclipsed" a deeper realism.
Set more than a decade ago, at the end of Charles Taylor’s presidency, “Eclipsed” arrives in Midtown with its Off-Broadway cast intact. The story unfolds mostly in a claustrophobic, bullet-riddled shack, where the wives of the unseen commanding officer try to maintain some normalcy.
The first order of business for “aging” “No.1” (Saycon Sengbloh)—she’s pushing 25—and pregnant “No. 3” (Pascale Armand) is to keep the CO from raping the nameless new arrival played by Nyong’o, the “12 Years a Slave” Oscar winner. At first, they think they can pull it off by hiding “The Girl” under a washtub.
The women’s current reality means the names their parents gave them are less relevant than the rankings they’ve been given by their CO. Part of the journey we go on in “Eclipsed” is seeing some of these characters seek out an identity more meaningful than just a number.
An already fragile dynamic in the commune is interrupted by the return of “No. 2,” a self-made—and well-manicured!—warrior played with ferocity by Zainab Jah. Appearing on the scene later is Rita (a regal Akosua Busia), a peacekeeper trying to establish a ceasefire and help get the women to refugee camps.
The Girl has clearly delineated paths from which to choose. She can wage war, or make peace.
The narrative arc is set against a backdrop of an event with worldwide repercussions, but the playwright finds humanity in small details. I was practically ashamed for laughing so loudly as The Girl, who was taught to read earlier in life, impresses her companions with snippets from a discarded and dated book she has found on the Clinton presidency, particularly as it related to the Lewinsky affair.
The same bridges to an American audience are constructed as the women try to position a dysfunctional radio to bring them news, and perhaps some Tupac.
The performances are top-notch. I loved Nyong’o, who is vulnerable, comical and charismatic, as a still-malleable girl on the cusp of womanhood. I was touched, as well, by Sengboh and Armand, who are torn between the enemy they know, and the uncertainties of a life without his protection.
“Eclipsed” has moved to a larger space without losing ability to shine light on the intimate decisions its characters face. As the women learn the civil war is coming to an end, they are unsure how to proceed. Move to a refugee camp? Stay with the CO? Be a soldier? The stage fades to black before Nyong'o's character, at least, has any idea what to do.
“Eclipsed,” on sale through June 19 at the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St. Tickets: $77-$146. Call 212-239-6200.