Tonight Danai Gurira’s emotionally driven play Eclipsed, opened on Broadway at the Golden Theater. Everyone in the audience knew they were seeing history, as this is the first play on Broadway to be written, directed and performed by all women and what women they are. Thanks to the Liberian civil war, women are either raped, slaughtered or made wives and by wives I mean, sexual salves. Having lost their names, families, freedoms, hopes and dreams, they forge their own survival with each other.
As the play begins we are in a dilapidated shell of a hut. Bullet ridden, there only belongings are sheets, a basin and a few personal belongings. Wife #1 (Saycon Sengbloh) and a pregnant Wife #3 (Pascale Armand) are desperately trying to conceal a 15- year-old girl (Lupita Nyong’o) from the same fate they have endured. To pass the time, they try to figure out how long and how old Wife #1 is. Taken when she was in her teens, she has been held captive for ten years. She longs to nurture the girl and save her, but when the girl leaves the hut to pee, the Commanding Officer who they refer to as the “C.O.” rapes her. The girl becomes Wife #4 and is now part of the terroristic ritual of the officer’s daily, sometimes hourly command for sex. As they are chosen in terror they leave in fear and return as zombie’s, as if nothing happened to wash their private parts from the attack and curl up to forget.
To pass the time Wife #4 reads from a book given to them about Bill Clinton. To them Monica Lewinsky is wife #2 and they find humor in his tale. When wife #2 (Zainab Jah) returns with gifts, wife #3 is excited about the new clothes and bag of rice but wife #1 shuns her and her gifts. You see wife #2 has become part of the rebels helping them to bring other women to this fate or worse. Wife #1 despite the abuse still holds onto her morality. When Rita (Akosua Busia), a representative of the Women’s Peace Movement, comes to the compound trying to broker a peace agreement she connects with wife #1. She gets her to speak aloud her real name and writes it for her. You see disassociation from who they really are is part of the crime here. Wife #2 has decided to indoctrinate wife #4 into claiming her freedom by joining the men. After a fight with wife #3 over a wig, she joins wife #2. This life is not as expected and wife #4 is forced to send other innocent women to her same fate. After one particular girl, she becomes haunted by the horrifying acts she has accepted and participated in. As the war ends, the women must choose their next path, which isn’t so clear when they have been this traumatized.
The cast is superb, with each adding layers of nuances. Ms. Nyong’o, is radiant as the girl whose innocents is the most lost. We she her light diminish as each day the horrors that face her break her down. Her performance is soul searching and she can be immensely proud of her Broadway debut. She is devastating to watch as she chooses her path. Ms. Sengboh brings a warmth and a motherly touch, while Ms. Armand brings comic timing. Ms. Jah is scarily real as the survivor who refuses to let “them” win. She is powerful and makes the choice a valid one. Even Ms. Busia in the smallest role ads a painful admission to whom she once was.
Liesl Tommy’s direction is clean, clear and unpretentious, she allows these words to speak for themselves and guides her actors to heartbreaking truths. By the end of this play you know each of these women and you bleed for them.
Between Eclipsed and Familiar Ms. Gurira’s,” is the best writer on Broadway and off Broadway right now. Her characters are so real. They’re needs combined with their wants, so high and their eternal devastation by the end makes you want to wail at the vastness of this pain, that she unearths. She knows how to combine humor, so that the real moments shine through and hit you in places so deep that you wonder if you won’t actually burst forth into sobs. Ms. Gurira understands the human suffering and knows how to make it universal. This play is a battle for the soul.
This play will definitely get several Tony nods.
Eclipsed: John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.