A few things worth noting about Eclipsed, which opened tonight at New York’s Golden Theatre: It marks the Broadway debuts of both Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira. Nyong’o is a stage-trained actor who won an Oscar for her performance in 12 Years A Slave. and currently is part of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens phenom. Gurira also is an actress — she plays Michonne on AMC’s The Walking Dead — who currently has two plays running in New York, this and Familiar which opened last week at off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons. And Eclipsed is the third transfer from the Public Theater, following the musicals Fun Home and Hamilton, to run concurrently on Broadway — a championship season for Oskar Eustis in his tenth season as artistic director.
Most important, Eclipsed is a major achievement — a scorching work about women and war whose humor burnishes rather than undermines its seriousness of purpose. And it features a ferociously committed ensemble performances staged with power and finesse by Leisl Tommy. It’s the kind of work no sane commercial producer would look at and immediately think Broadway — even with two highly recognizable names on the marquee.
And yet here it is.
The setting is a cinderblock hovel in a Liberian outpost controlled by rebel forces fighting the dictator Charles Taylor during the civil war that raged from the early 1990s until well into the first decade of the new century. The walls are pocked with bullet holes, there are no beds but the living quarters are tidy. Abiding here are two women serving as sex slaves to the “C.O.” the commanding officer of the rebel group. When one of his “officers” comes within view, the women stand at attention, waiting to see which of them is being summoned. They are called “wives,” and there’s a pecking order: Wife #1 (Seycon Sengbloh) is the boss within these crumbling walls; Wife #3 (Pascale Armand) is younger and six months’ pregnant. We will find out that Wife #2 is literally MIA.
There’s also an overturned tub in the room and once the coast is clear from the latest drive-by, the Wives lift it to reveal The Girl (Nyong’o), a semi-literate teen whom they have been protecting from the C.O. to no avail; she soon becomes Wife #4. The three women survive with their wits, their humor and a keen interest in a book #4 has smuggled in, which turns out to be a biography of Bill Clinton. They come to regard Cleen-to as a figure of power and charisma whose trials resulting from his sexual diversions they find quite ridiculous.
When Wife #2 (Zainab Jah) finally does show up, she has a machine gun draped on her shoulder and a sack of rice for her practically starving former friends. Having joined the rebel army fighting Taylor, she has the power never to be anyone’s slave again. But it comes at a heavy price, as #4 soon finds out when she too joins the rebels. The savagery they have experienced they now take part in to ensure their own survival, and N’yongo’s climactic monologue, relating her experience in harrowing, heart-rending detail, is at once a testament to this actress’ extraordinary power and to the searing concision with which Gurira sketches the scene.
A fifth woman, a kind of global do-good missionary (Akosua Busia) arrives in an effort to convince them all to abandon everything but God, mostly prompting the Wives’ derision. Still, she ultimately seems to provide some comfort to #4. By the end, the major breakthrough is that every one of them exits the gruesome scene with her given name.
Eclipsed — how resonant that title becomes long after the lights have come up on the play — offers resolution but no hope. It’s shattering in part because, while the Liberian civil war finally ended, the struggle continues in a ravished human landscape. We can do little more than bear witness — something this miraculous play helps boldly to accomplish.