Danai Gurira, the author of this white hot very topical play about sexual slavery in Nigeria, has made a remarkable start to a major career as playwright and actor. Perhaps best known as star of the series The Walking Dead, she has written another play, Familiar, on currently at Playwrights Horizons off Broadway. Eclipsed opened to very positive notices at the Public Theatre late last year, and now some fourteen producers, in association with the Public have bravely moved it to the Golden Theatre on West 45th Street, a small house that has been hospitable to many substantial hits from Angel Street, Crimes of the Heart, the Gin Game, the Nine O’Clock Revues of Alexander Cohen, and Avenue Q and dozens of others since it first lit up in 1927.
It joins a recent and current crop of topical plays that deal with many of the ills that are plaguing all of us as the 21st Century reaches the middle of its second decade. Whereas “problem plays” of an earlier era tackled specific pockets of public concern, we are in such turmoil now that dramas and even comedies deal less and less with divorce, middle age, adolescence, disloyalty, prevarication, romance, conceit and illness in all its forms, the natural shocks that Mr. Shakespeare warned us about. Now the theatre turns to the big time problems that face humanity — the dark demonic problems that have survived and flourished since the beginning — the Greeks wrote about fratricide, matricide and suicide for starters. When Ibsen and Strindberg in Europe and Eugene O’Neill in the USA came along, plays began to poke into the psychological underpinnings of our dirty doings. But now. with the arrival and foothold of the Technological age, we are being treated to the really scary options that are being offered us. Apocalypse, annihilation, self-immolation, torture, beheadings, ugly and painful imprisonment, plus all of the old time irritants like racism, sexism, betrayal, control and illiteracy.. They are all now fashionable and they make excellent ingredients for the stew with which we sustain ourselves. And of course they make great source material for the playwrights of our time.
Eclipsed is one of this new breed of plays that screams out from the headlines of the day. It deals with the kidnapping and sexual enslavement of young girls 15 and older who are being held captive in a rebel compound during the Nigerian civil wars to satisfy the sexual needs of the commanding officer. Though set over a decade ago, this story resonates even more forcefully today. The three central characters are merely “Wife 1, Wife 2, and Wife 3”; they are not called by name; they are dehumanized. Pregnancy makes one of them immediately useless and another has joined the militant arm fighting in the very war from which she had hoped to escape. At the start of the play we meet the latest recruit, a 15 year old who is referred to merely as “The Girl.” She had stumbled into the camp while fleeing from rebels attacking her home town. The two women living in the shack have been hiding her (under a rubber bathtub!) to protect her, but when she leaves the hut looking for a toilet, she is spotted and she becomes “Wife 4” The two who share her sordid little tin-roofed hut are Wives 1 and 3. We will meet #2, who is the one who has somehow managed to take up arms.
The five actresses who populate this story of the fight against degradation are all committed and capable of playing even the humor which pops up, particularly in the first act. In reading from a stolen biography of Bill Clinton, they are amazed by the story of Mon-ica Lew-in-sky, whom they call Clinton’s Wife #2. The biggest laugh in the act’s opening hour occurs when they conclude what would happen in Nigeria if the leader had a second wife. It’s an earned laugh and reminds us that these poor souls are human and capable of finding humor even in the midst of the horror of their circumstance.
Ms. Nyong’o has already proven herself a first-rate talent, particularly in the film 12 Years A Slave, for which she won an Academy Award. And in this play, in which she first appears as an innocent 15 year old who, when discovered, is raped again and again by the commanding officer, manages to succeed in the transition to a woman who must make a choice before the end of the play. She makes that choice convincingly, and her final moments bring the play to a terribly sad, but sound conclusion. I would have preferred, on behalf of all of these players, the use of a tighter directorial rein, particularly in the longer first act. The image that came to mind, more than once, was of walking in New York, trying to be attentive and aware of the beauty around me, but irritated by the sirens of an approaching ambulance which grew louder and louder until they made me think only of my own discomfort and not of the poor soul inside the ambulance. On stage, at times I found a shouting match up there, and the heavy use of dialect often distanced me from many of Ms. Gurira’s well-chosen words.
I found the play informative; I knew little of these tribal wars beyond the headlines about the atrocities onstage, and could imagine even worse being committed in the wings whenever “the Girl” was summoned. But I must admit I was distanced by the relentless shouting and some of the overdone body movements that I believe needed regulating from Director Liesl Tommy.
I recommend this clearly sincere play to anyone interested in learning more about this underworld activity which becomes only more graphic when put before us on a stage. But I warn that I found it more disturbing than moving.
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission.
Eclipsed is playing at the Golden Theatre – 252 West 45th Street, Between Broadway and 8th Avenue, in New York City. For tickets, got to the box office, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, or (800) 447-7400, or purchase them online.