|Pascale Armand, Lupita Nyong'o, and Saycon Sengbloh in the Broadway production of Eclipsed.|
With diversity of representation such a prominent topic in the entertainment industry right now, Eclipsed certainly comes at a fortuitous time. Not only does this new play feature a cast comprised entirely of black actresses, but both playwright Danai Gurira (an award-winning writer best known as the actress who plays Michonne on AMC's The Walking Dead) and director Liesl Tommy are also women of color. Having a high profile Broadway production told from this viewpoint is certainly worth celebrating, but shouldn't overshadow the fact that the main selling point Eclipsed is its status as an excellently scripted and acted drama, tackling a subject rarely explored in American theatre.
The show takes place in 2003 Liberia, towards the end of the country's decades-long civil war (a concise and incredibly helpful program insert describes the history of the conflict so anyone can follow along). The story centers around the multiple wives of an unseen war general, all of whom have been taken against their will and are attempting to make the best of their situation. Their carefully established equilibrium is thrown into chaos with the addition of a fifteen-year-old girl to their ranks, providing an entry point for the play to explore the many facets of this tragically common situation.
The most striking thing about Gurira's writing is that she neither shies away from nor dwells on the women's harrowing circumstances. Systematically raped and abused from a young age, the women never devolve into mere victims, even though they are so oppressed they fear using their given names; the wives refer to one another as Numbers 1 through 4, indicating the order in which they came into the general's life.
Despite this unnerving set of circumstances, Gurira's play contains large amounts of humor and even hope. We see the extreme emotional cost of their experiences, but we also see the wives looking for ways to make the best of the cards they've been dealt. One wife tries her best to work within the system, while another becomes a soldier so the men are forced to see her as an equal rather than an object. Each choice is presented as valid, and Gurira shows a large amount of compassion and respect for all of her characters.
The play's five women are brought to engrossing life by a fine company of actresses, headlined by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o as the latest addition to the general's harem, known only as The Girl. Nyong'o is just as captivating onstage as she is onscreen, and she charts her character's complex emotional journey with supreme honesty and clarity. This Girl makes some shocking choices over the course of the play, but Nyong'o makes you believe every one of them, while at the same time projecting the character's gnawing doubt and increasing fear. It is a captivating Broadway debut, and hopefully this Mexican-Kenyan actress will find the time to make regular visits to the Great White Way between her various film projects.
Saycon Sengbloh is sensational as Wife #1, bringing a fascinating weight and authority to her world-weary head wife. Having dealt with the general's abuse the longest, Sengbloh projects a caustic outer layer while simultaneously displaying the deep wells of compassion that cause Wife #1 to treat the the other wives with a maternal sense of kindness. One of the play's most moving scenes is when Sengbloh's character learns to write her name; during that moment you can see on Sengbloh's face the joy of a thousand possibilities opening up, as Wife #1 realizes she can do more than she ever thought possible. Pascale Armand provides much of the play's comic relief as the pregnant Wife #3, but is also at the center of perhaps the most devastating moment when forced to explain her supremely conflicted feelings about the baby inside her.
Zainab Jah has the most overtly antagonistic role as Wife #2 (although it is clear throughout that the unseen men are the real villains of the piece), and she exudes massive amounts of swagger as a rebel soldier who has had a falling out with the rest of the wives. Yet Jah remains distinctly feminine throughout, and makes a convincing argument that picking up a gun is the only way to make men respect her in such a patriarchal society. Wife #2 is a complex and often off-putting character, but Jah shows us enough of her inner turmoil to make her understandable and even sympathetic. Rounding out the cast is veteran actress Akosua Busia as Rita, a member of a women's peace group who is the first to show the general's wives that there are more options available to them than they previously thought.
Director Liesl Tommy brings an insightful eye to the proceedings, making excellent use of what initially appears to be a limited set by Clint Ramos (as the evening goes on, the depth and versatility of Ramos' design becomes apparent). Tommy guides all of her actresses to fully realized, immensely interesting performances while avoiding the temptation to allow the kind of showy, scenery chewing histrionics that too often accompany these types of dramas. Tommy's strong grasp of the play's mood and tone is elevated by Jen Schriever's dynamic lighting, along with Broken Chord's original music and sound design.
Like the best dramas, Eclipsed doesn't beat its audience over the head with symbolism or heavy-handed preaching. But it does present plenty of food for thought, filled with images and ideas that will remain with you long after the performance ends. Gurira's writing is insightful and most importantly real, and it provides a perfect springboard for this fabulous collection of actresses to bring this powerful piece to life. Anyone interested in thought-provoking theatre should see this play; those who care about diverse representation should make it a priority, as Ecplised is a perfect example of the new and interesting works that can result from artists with different backgrounds than the norm.