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When Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o was invited to star in a play at the Public by artistic director Oskar Eustis, she immediately chose Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, and it’s easy to see why. Eclipsed is a searing look at five women trying to find ways to survive during the second Liberian civil war, a memorably written, directed, and acted story filled with surprising dark humor among horrific abuse and violence. The play was initially staged by Woolly Mammoth and then at Yale Rep in 2009, where Nyong’o served as an understudy and never got the opportunity to go on. It was such a success at the Public last fall that it has since transferred to Broadway, where it’s running at the Golden Theatre through June 19. Set in 2003, the play explores the terrifying situation of five women, three of whom live together in a ramshackle cement hut riddled with bullet holes and are sex slaves to a local commanding officer. They are known merely as wife Number One (Saycon Sengbloh), who has been there the longest and manages the household; pregnant wife Number Three (Pascale Armand), who likes to complain and is rather scattershot; and the new girl, wife Number Four (Nyong’o), who is determined to hold on to her identity despite what is happening to her and the others. When Number Four asks Number One about her age and Number One doesn’t seem to care, Number Four says, “Don’t you want to know? I don’ know, I just tink we should know who we are, whot year we got, where we come from. Dis war not forever.” Number One responds, “Dat whot it feel like,” to which Number Four replies, “Ya, but it not. I want to keep doing tings. I fifteen years, I know dat. I want to do sometin’ wit’ myself, be a doctor or member of Parliament or sometin’.”
Despite such dreams, their value as objects rather than humans is made clear; every so often, they suddenly line up in a row as the unseen CO walks by and chooses which one he wants to have sex with. When they return, they go straight to a basin, grab a washcloth, and clean themselves. Soon Number Two (Zainab Jah) returns, a revolutionary carrying a rifle and bringing rice, which Number One refuses. Number Two, who has joined the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) against corrupt President Charles Taylor, wants to recruit Number Four, but Number Four is too immersed in a book she is reading out loud, about a U.S. leader named Bill Clinton. “A white man?” Number One asks. “Ya, he white. He from America,” Number Four answers. “You sho he white? Dere lots of Liberians in America. Maybe he American from Liberia or Liberian from America,” Number Three adds. “No, I tink he American from America,” Number Four, who wears Rugrats and Tweety Bird T-shirts, says. Later, Number Three claims, “He see me, he gon’ forget dat white wife. She betta not let him come ’ere.” In her fantasy of release, she’s still a concubine, only to a white U.S. president rather than a Liberian warlord, perhaps a sly dig at the “liberation” of first-world women. The whole conversation about Bill and Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky is much-needed comic relief as things heat up and Rita (Akosua Busia), a peace worker dressed in white like an angel, comes to the compound to meet with the CO and try to help end the civil war.
Eclipsed is the second of four plays about Africa and African Americans written by Gurira, a Zimbabwean American who plays zombie killer Michonne on The Walking Dead; she won an Obie for 2005’s In the Continuum, was nominated for an L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for 2012’s The Convert, and Familiar has been extended at Playwrights Horizon. In her return to the stage — and her Broadway debut — following her Oscar-winning performance in 12 Years a Slave, Mexican Kenyan Nyong’o is mesmerizing as a young woman bright beyond her years, prepared to do whatever it takes to maintain her identity and, ultimately, regain her freedom without sacrificing her humanity, something that the brutal, fierce Number Two no longer worries about. “We gon’ restore Liberia to its rightful people,” Number Two tells Number Four. “You understand, de enemy, de enemy is no longer human being. Okay?” Reprising their roles from the Yale Rep production, Jah (Ruined, The Convert), who was born in England and partly raised in Sierra Leone, fully inhabits her role as the freedom warrior, inspired by real women who took up arms to fight against Taylor’s rule, while Armand (The Trip to Bountiful, An Octoroon), who was born in Brooklyn and whose parents are from Haiti, is charming as a woman who never quite learned how to take care of herself. Sengbloh (Marley, Hurt Village), who is of Liberian heritage, is bold yet tender-hearted as the strong-willed but perhaps misguided ersatz leader of the sex slaves, and Ghanaian Busia (Mule Bone, The Talented Tenth) lends a touching vulnerability to the peace worker who has a personal agenda in her mission. Together they form a kind of alternate family of parents and children attempting to deal with an impossible situation, their performances ringing true with realistic and rhythmic movement and dialogue, beautifully directed by South Africa native Tommy (Ruined, The Good Negro), who has been with the show from the start. The set and costumes by Clint Ramos and music and sound design by Broken Chord add to the mood, which is fraught with danger yet resilient with hope, giving balance to this extraordinary story by and about women and power. Coincidentally, the Playbill front cover features a close-up of Nyong’o’s very serious face, while the back cover shows her bursting with happiness in an elegant advertisement for a high-end makeup company, providing quite a contrast that is, in some ways, metaphorically echoed in this very special production.