THEATER: Written by award-winning Zimbabwean-American Playwright, Danai Gurira, featuring a cast of five women, including Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, and directed by a woman, ‘Eclipsed’ is “a feminist reading of the Liberian Civil War.

Image for Eclipsed

Photo: Joan Marcus / The Public Theater

Written by award-winning Zimbabwean-AmericanPlaywright/Actress, Danai Gurira, featuring a cast of five women, including Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”), and directed by a woman, ‘Eclipsed’ is “a feminist reading of the Liberian Civil War.”

In this powerful play that transferred to Broadway, Gurira, known for her role as sword-wielding zombie slayer Michonne on The Walking Dead, raises her voice against the dehumanizing oppression of the Second Liberian Civil War.

Amid the chaos and atrocities of the war, the three captive wives of a rebel officer (Number 1, Number 3 and Number 4) form a fragile community living in fear of an always imminent rape. Former wife Number 2 (Zainab Jah)chose to become an armed soldier and joined in the atrocities. She surfaces now and again only as an illusion of choice.

Number 1, played by the gripping Saycon Sengbloh, sets out to rescue the youngest of them Number 4 (an intense Lupita Nyong’o) from the clutches of the commanding officer, whose presence is suggested but never depicted. The actress creates a character who compellingly blends regality, dignity, and a strict hand. While Pascale Armand does a stellar job as the heavily pregnant Number 3. She is tragically funny as a clueless dreamer who’s pleased as punch any time new clothe or food arrive.

During the first act Gurira finds the sweet spot between humor and pathos and plants her  feet there firmly. The normality of their tragic lives unfolds without a dull moment. The three women cook, clean and gossip. Number 4 reads to them from a romance novel that turns out to be a biography of Bill Clinton mentioning Monica Lewinsky who they refer to as Wife No. 2. 

During the second act the play turns toward the dramatic. Lupita is heartbreaking as a soldier confronted simultaneously by conscience and the desire to carry out the choice she made only to escape being a rape victim. It becomes clear  that the only alternatives the girl faces are to brutalize others or to be brutalized herself. Akosua Busia’s role as Rita, the peace campaigner, emphasizes this dialogue that ping-pongs back and forth between tragedy and even more tragedy. 

In the end the war is over, this vicious logic has no longer any raison d’etre, and three of the characters are dignified with  their original names: (Number 1 is Helena, Number 2 is Maima, and Number 3 is Bessie). Only Number 4—The Girl, Mother’s Blessing—is  still nameless. Maybe because, unlike the others, she hasn’t made her definitive choice:  freedom inside or outside the rebel army? But there is no moment of truth. In the final scene she stands suspended at a crossroads, with a gun in one hand and a book in the other. 

Although the second act felt a bit long, the overall effect of this beautifully acted production is as powerful as it is poignant.

Eclipsed. On a limited Broadway run through June 19