Photo - Joan Marcus
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors
With stunning power, Danai Gurira's, Eclipsed, brings to mind the horror of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the extremist group, Boko Haram, in 2014. Today a few girls have escaped, revealing heinous stories of rapes, forced marriages, relinquishment of their names, loss of freedom, homes, and dignity. Despite worldwide censure, most of the Nigerian girls remain captive today.
Eclipsed, at Broadway's Golden Theatre, focuses on a fictional group of women gripped in a cruel power struggle during the Liberian civil war that decimated the country for 15 years. Different country, a decade earlier, but similar situation. During the rebel insurrection against dictator, Charles Taylor, the women were captured for use as sex slaves to the "C.O.", commander of the area's rebels.
Their choices of survival are limited. Their shelter, designed by Clint Ramos, is a shabby hut, pock-marked with bullet holes and furnished only with boxes and light blankets. They make this a home for themselves. They wash clothes, cook, and wait to be summoned by one of the rebels. When they spot a man outside, the women drop what they are doing and, terrified, they line up. He makes his choice and the others go back to work. The audience never sees any of the men but their presence is palpable.
Saycon Sengbloh plays Helena, Wife #1, the maternal authority in this grim family. She has been there for ten years. Wife #3, Bessie, is pregnant, and played by Pascale Armand, she still shows a trace of youthful eagerness for colorful clothes and fixing her hair.
Recently, a young girl wandered into the compound, was discovered by the C.O., raped and put with the other captive "wives". Played with fear and vulnerability by Lupeta Nyong'o (Twelve Years a Slave), she is simply called "Girl." She is the only one able to read and when they find a discarded book, she reads to the wives, entertaining them with the exploits of Bill Clinton. The women find moments of humor in the midst of suffering when Girl reads about "Cleenton."
Maima (Wife #2), eventually struts in with a welcome sack of rice. Played by Zainab Jah, she is tough, trim and sexy in fitted jeans and flashy tee. Slung over her shoulder is an AK-47. Some time ago she decided she would not continue living like a slave and disappeared to join the rebel army.
"You have to decide whot you wont. Dis is war, how you gon’ survive?," Maima tells Girl. "Just go get gun.” When Nyong'o agrees, we watch her magnetic evolution of a innocent teenager into a steely soldier, hardened by the brutal side of survival.
Akosua Busia plays a fifth woman, Rita, working for a peace initiative that occasionally visits the compounds. She gives the women words of encouragement and at the end offers help those who want to leave.
Directed by Liesl Tommy, the pacing often feels uneven, the first act carefully building until Act 2 charges in with explosive force. It is often difficult to understand the dialect but Gurira's drama of unspeakably lonely torment is heightened by Jen Schriever's lighting design and Broken Chord's original music and sound design, magnifying the violence and pervasive fear.
Outstanding is how well Tommy elicits distinctions between the women of this forceful cast, Sengbloh's caring know-how, Armand's childish excitement, and the tough-as-nails Jah. Nyongo is the standout, with captivating stage presence, always in the present, evident as she reflects the terror she feels and the brutality she must inflict.
The ending is unpredictable, as it should be. When there is a chance for escape, the wives show how difficult it is to take that risk. Bessie decides to stay, stating, "Whot I go do out dere?"
As the others leave, Girl stands frozen, rifle in one hand, a book in the other, and unable to move. The lights fade out.
John Golden Theater
252 - West 45 Street
Previews: Feb. 23, 2015, Opened: Mar. 6, 2016. Closing: June 19, 2016
Playwright: Danai Gurira
Director: Liesl Tommy
Two hours, 15 minutes. One intermission
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors