If you would have told me seven years ago there would be a show on Broadway that starred, was written and directed by all African American (and African-born) women I may have laughed at you. Simply because those stories don’t get told, that’s not what people come to Broadway for! For most, Broadway is a world of escapism, a perfect little utopia in which the biggest problem is getting the girl you love to love you back. Eclipsed is nothing of the sorts and that is a feat within itself.
Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed is bold, refreshing, riveting and all around breathtaking. It starts the moment you walk into the Golden Theatre to see the stage transformed into a compound in Libera during the Liberian Civil War in 2003.
The first character we meet on stage is “Wife No. 1” (played brilliantly by Saycon Sengbloh) whose role within the compound is clear, she’s the mother hen. We meet her as she’s cornrowing the hair of “Wife No. 3” (the hilarious and smart Pascale Armand) so that her wig can stay on better (Gurira subtley plays with the dynamics of good and bad hair here). It is then we meet the Girl, played with tenacious vulnerability and youthfulness by Academy Award winner Luptia Nyong’o. She stumbled upon the compound after fleeing her own village and has sought refuge with Wife No. 1 and No. 3, who fight to keep her hidden. Their reason? The term “wife” is only used to hide fact these women are essentially sex slaves, for the CO, the commandant, a rebel warlord in which they serve. The fact that these women are nameless, speaks volumes as to what times were like in Libera at the time. As much as they try to shelter the Girl, she is found and meets the same fate as them and is then labeled as Wife No. 4. It’s also worth the mention that Akosua Busia’s “Rita, is a breath of fresh air as a peace ambassador she’s able to get the girls to open up in ways they haven’t done before. A vision in white, she quickly becomes their light.
Perhaps the most riveting of the scenes is watching the women laugh and joke with each other, only to be interrupted when the CO is approaching and wants to have his way with one of them (usually Wife No.4). The way their demeanor shifts and the energy in the theatre is stale, we too are afraid of will happen next. Only to have the women return, wipe themselves down and go on about their day as if nothing happened. The story picks up momentum with the arrival of Wife No. 2 (Zainab Jah) who escaped a life of sexual servitude by joining the rebels in war. Her relationship with the other wives are strained, but she takes a liking to the Girl, one that has her coming around more often.
It is after speaking with Wife No. 2 in the forest gathering wood for the fire, that the Girl transforms in front of our very eyes, and Nyong’o plays both sides of her with ease. While the Girl still maintains her innocence, she has a newfound confidence and becomes much more audacious in her actions. She is eventually caught in the web of seduction and freedom offered to her by Wife No. 2 and thus begins her own self-journey. One that is punctuated in one of the hands-down best monologues heard on Broadway yet. This is the climax. This is the turning point, this is the moment that Nyong’o truly shines and proves she is a force to be reckoned with.
The gut-wrenching monologue delivered with bewilderment and confusion, and a little bit of hysteria by Ms. Nyong’o, had the entire theatre silent. The Girl is forced to remember all of the atrocities she participated in, and immediately the shame, disgust, and sadness is apparent. Not only was she a victim of this war, but she was also an active participant inflicting that same suffering she went though on to someone else. The ending leaves room for audiences to decide her fate and we feel the full weight of it, after all for the past two hours we went through the journey with her.
The Girls’ future may be uncertain – but as for the all of the amazing actresses in Eclipsed and it’s brilliant female playwright- their future for certain is bright and should come with a silver trophy named Tony.
Eclipsed is playing now through June 19th at the Golden Theatre. Tickets can be purchased here, by calling (212) 239-6200, or by purchasing at the box office.