The back cover of the Playbill for Eclipsed shows Lupita Nyong’o, the Mexican-Kenyan actress who won an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave and played Maz Kanata in the new Star Wars film, looking quite glamorous and beautiful in a full-page advertisement for Lancome Paris. Her physical appearance could not be more different in Eclipsed, Danai Gurira’s intense and harrowing ensemble drama depicting African women struggling to survive during Liberia’s civil war in 2003, which has transferred to Broadway after a sold-out run at the Public Theater.
The Girl (as her character is billed in the Playbill) first materializes from under a plastic tub in a squalid hovel, where she is being hidden by two “wives” (Pascale Armand and Saycon Sengbloh) of a rebel officer fighting the forces of the country’s president. They hope to protect the 15-year-old girl from being subjected to sexual slavery. Nevertheless, she is spotted, raped and named wife number four. Unlike the other women, she can read and write, and she devours a leftover biography of Bill Clinton.
The women are later confronted by a former wife (Zainab Jah) who has since become a gun-toting soldier and Rita (Akosua Busia), one of the many women in the country who are advocating for a peaceful resolution to the warfare. Eventually, The Girl is tempted into becoming a soldier herself.
Eclipsed will no doubt be compared with Lynn Nottage’s 2009 Pulitzer-winning drama Ruined, which depicted women affected by the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. If Eclipsed lacks the narrative strength of Ruined, it remains a compelling study of women in an atmosphere of overwhelming violence and sexual abuse.
Gurira, a Zimbabwean-American playwright and actress, is best known for her work on the television series The Walking Dead. Her newest play, Familiar, just opened Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. Although Eclipsed was first produced regionally in 2009, it did not come to New York until Nyong’o expressed interest in it. Her support for such a brutal, uncomfortable work stands in stark contrast to other film actors who come to Broadway only in revivals or new pieces by established authors.
The performances in Eclipsed are exceptional all around. The production (directed with graphic detail by Liesl Tommy) also has historical significance, marking the first Broadway show with a female playwright, a female director and an all-female cast.