How rarely can anything like Eclipsed be seen in the starry firmament of Broadway? Musicals with all-black or mostly black casts come along every so often; so, recently, do revivals of white plays (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Trip to Bountiful) reimagined with an African-American spin. But a new play whose writer, director and entire cast of five are all women of African descent? On the Great White Way, that counts as a first. Among its many other virtues, Eclipsed offers the thrill of hearing voices too often drowned out.
Zimbabwean-American playwright Danai Gurira, whose Familiar just opened Off Broadway, is also an actor; she plays Michonne on The Walking Dead, and was a superb Isabella in Shakespeare in the Park’s 2011 Measure for Measure . She has a feeling for the kind of writing that actors can dig into, and in Eclipsed she has created five characters with real meat on them. Nearly all of these women remain nameless for much of the play, which unfolds toward the end of the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003; four of them have been forced into sexual bondage by a rebel warlord, and now refer to themselves and each other by their rank as his “wives.”
Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), in her Broadway debut, plays the youngest of them. In my review of the play’s production at the Public Theater in October, I wrote:
“Wife #1 (Saycon Sengbloh) is the oldest and most nurturing; Wife #3 (Pascale Armand) is bubbly, simple and pregnant. In a bullet-ridden hovel, they try to hide the 15-year-old Girl (Lupito Nyong’o) under a plastic basin, but it’s not long before she’s brutally claimed as Wife #4. Meanwhile, the erstwhile Wife #2 (Zainab Jah) has remade herself into a ruthless soldier, determined to be the biggest bitch in a dog-eat-dog world. Directed by Liesl Tommy, all four of the actors portraying these women are superb; Nyong’o is as radiant as one would expect from this rising star, but the others shine as brightly. Gurira renders their plight in sometimes harrowing detail, but her focus is on the personal: their secrets and rivalries, their fears and guilt. (Mercifully, the play is often funny; one running joke has the women reading a biography of Bill Clinton.)”
In its Broadway incarnation, these women remain powerfully specific, and their relationships have warmth and texture. At least from where I was sitting, which was fairly close to the stage, the performances sometimes seemed broader than they had been at the Public; the actors may still be adjusting to the larger new space. Jah’s exceptional performance as #2—she has a wonderfully snaky hiss—is now the most consistent, and I was struck even more than before by the balance and intelligence of the play’s treatment of her terrifying character, who winds up playing by a more merciless version of the same ugly rules. Eclipsed is consistently insightful about the ways in which the oppressed become inured to or reliant upon their oppression, even to the point of reproducing it; motherhood, biological or situational, is another of the play's major themes, and its exploration goes in surprising directions.
As its title suggests, these are women whose light is being blocked, but it’s still visible as a corona, waiting for the darkness to pass. Bleak though the world it depicts may be, Eclipsed is humane and essentially hopeful. It may be hard to watch at times, but you leave with your eyes wider open.