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This review of ‘Eclipsed’ in its premiere New York run at the Public Theater was originally published by THR on Oct. 14, 2015.
Lupita Nyong’o makes her entrance in Eclipsed by scrambling out from her hiding place under a plastic washtub, wearing a grubby Rugrats t-shirt and cotton skirt, her hair pulled into a messy topknot of untamed frizz. As star entrances go, it’s hard to imagine one less glamorous for a red-carpet darling whose first New York stage bow is sandwiched between her Oscar-winning screen debut in 12 Years a Slave and a role in an upcoming little movie called Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But that’s entirely in keeping with the generous, even-handed spirit of Danai Gurira’s richly nuanced ensemble piece about women enduring the dehumanizing oppression of the Second Liberian Civil War.
At a time when the under-representation of women and minorities among produced playwrights continues to provoke sharp criticism in theater circles, Eclipsed is immediately notable as a work written by a Zimbabwean-American woman; featuring a cast of five women with African roots, playing distinctly drawn characters yet working as a single, powerful unit; and directed by a South African-born woman.
But make no mistake, Liesl Tommy’s fine production is not simply a case in which attention must be paid due to worthy subject matter and a proudly hoisted diversity flag. It also signals Gurira — known for her role as sword-wielding zombie slayer Michonne on The Walking Dead — as a playwright of uncommon ambition. Some second-act structural weaknesses notwithstanding, Eclipsed pulls us into and holds us captive in a vivid world whose stark horrors are rendered with unflinching honesty and delicate poignancy — all the more so because they are treated as an everyday reality, often viewed with surprising humor.
The play was first seen in three back-to-back regional productions in fall 2009, including one from L.A.’s Center Theater Group. But its path to New York was delayed, coming in the wake of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning Ruined, a more hard-hitting work also inspired by interviews with brutalized African women, in that case refugees of the Congolese conflict.
Following her Oscar win, Nyong’o was invited by the Public Theater to consider stage projects; she chose to return to Eclipsed, having understudied in the Yale Rep production while she was at Yale School of Drama. She plays a character identified only as the Girl, the youngest of four captive “wives” of a rebel warlord fighting to overthrow Charles Taylor’s dictatorial government in 2003.
Ranked by number according to their hierarchy within the group, the women are on hand to provide sex, cook meals and do laundry for the unseen C.O., counting themselves lucky to escape lower-level compounds where they would be passed from soldier to soldier. Their exact ages are forgotten, and even their birth names rarely used in a situation in which their identities, along with their rights, have been erased. What makes Eclipsed compelling, however, is the compassion and insight with which Gurira, Tommy and their remarkable cast sketch these women as complex, resilient individuals, each with her own hopes and strengths.
Helena (Saycon Sengbloh) is Number One, having been with the C.O. since she was captured ten or so years earlier, and she asserts her seniority to compensate for having slipped down the chain of desirability. The somewhat younger and heavily pregnant Bessie (Pascale Armand), or Number Three, is not above reminding Number One of her physical decline, suggesting that being in her 20s puts her over the hill, while at the same time fretting about the retreat of her own youthfulness. However, there’s a touching solidarity beneath the scrappiness of these women, notably in their efforts to protect the recently arrived Number Four (Nyong’o) from being jumped on. But the Girl perhaps deliberately puts herself in the C.O.’s path, her shock after her first experience of being raped tempered by a perverse kind of relief that the inevitable initiation is out of the way.
Number Four’s unanswered questions about the absent Number Two are clarified when Maima (Zainab Jab) strolls into the camp with an assault rifle slung over her shoulder and a bag of rice as a peace offering, stubbornly refused by Helena. Designer Clint Ramos deftly makes the point that while the captive wife-turned-rebel soldier has chosen to be a warrior as an escape from sexual servitude, in appearance, she’s in fact the most sexualized of the women, poured into skintight, bling-covered jeans and a skimpy Chanel knockoff top. It also emerges that, even as a soldier, she seeks out the strategic protection of high-ranking lovers.
With a clear-eyed, nonjudgmental gaze, the episodic narrative follows the Girl’s dilemma as Helena attempts to keep her within the relative safety of her fold, while Number Two encourages her to bear arms and reject subjugation. That Maima cannot even articulate what they are fighting for is part of the play’s sorrowful point. Likewise, the fact that the looting, kidnapping, murder and recruitment of child soldiers perpetrated by the militarized rebels is no less barbaric than that of Taylor’s army.
Additional perspective is provided by Rita (Akosua Busia), a delegate from a women’s peace advocacy network, initially viewed with suspicion by the compound wives. Her efforts to enlighten them about the importance of education, and of conserving a sense of where they come from, have an affecting impact above all on Number One.
Tommy directs the play with a measured feel for its emotional peaks and an ear attuned to the musical rhythms of its language. And the drama’s blend of naturalistic observation with poetic allegory is echoed in the evocative design choices, with Ramos’ bullet hole-riddled shack backed by a window onto a bare wall, broken only by stylized trees and splashed in searing colors by Jen Schriever’s lighting. In a similar vein, the music by Broken Chord is an artful blend of African sounds with electronica.
The play’s concluding scenes feel rushed and a tad scattershot, but that’s partly due to the uncertainty that clings to the women’s fates even after Taylor flees to Nigeria and major fighting ceases. However, the characters and their stories stay with us, thanks to the indelible work of the cast and the vibrant expressiveness of Gurira’s Liberian-English dialogue. While all except Maima have continued to tell themselves that the war is temporary, their difficulty in imagining any other role for themselves resonates strongly.
Jah and Armand have been with the play since the Yale Rep staging, also directed by Tommy, giving them a vital grasp of their characters’ shadings. The former is fierce and hardened perhaps beyond repair, while the latter maintains a tender innocence and vulnerability even while supplying considerable comic relief.
The playwright threads sly humor throughout about the long reach of America’s cultural imprint, for instance when Bessie says of her ratty wig, “It still mek me look like Janet Jackson oh.” And a copy of a Bill Clinton biography that turns up among loot passed to the women by the C.O. fuels hilarious commentary on perceptions of power when the Girl — unlike the others, she has rudimentary reading skills — entertains them with excerpts from the book. (“So who Monica now?” asks Bessie. “She Number Two, no?” ventures Helena.)
Seen mostly up to now in musicals like Hair, Fela! and Motown, Sengbloh brings stern dignity to the mother hen torn between protectiveness and self-protection; along with the Girl, her character undergoes the most stirring changes. Busia (Nettie in Steven Spielberg’s film of The Color Purple) brings humanity to some potentially didactic dialogue, and while Gurira plants clues suggesting a too-tidy narrative coincidence concerning Rita, she smartly sidesteps that false trail in a beautifully acted scene.
Nyong’o is fully convincing as an openhearted 15-year-old, and then later chilling as she drills herself in the tenets of Maima’s recruitment, seemingly expunging all traces of empathy. But a plaintive monologue during which she recounts being cursed by a female prisoner to whom she showed no mercy reveals the Girl’s shattered core. As an embodiment of lives hanging in the balance between impossible choices, she’s heartbreaking.
Venue: Golden Theatre, New York
Cast: Pascale Armand, Saycon Sengbloh, Lupita Nyong’o, Zainab Jah, Akosua Busia
Director: Liesl Tommy
Playwright: Danai Gurira
Set & costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Jen Schriever
Music & sound designer: Broken Chord
Fight directors: Rick Sordelet, Christian Kelly-Sordelet
Production: The Public Theater
Presented by Stephen C. Byrd, Alia Jones-Harvey, Paula Marie Black, Carole Shorenstein Hayes, Alani LaLa Anthony, Michael Magers, Kenny Ozoude, Willette Klausner, Davelle, Dominion Pictures, Emanon Productions, FG Productions, The Forstalls, MA Theatricals
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