Saycon Sengbloh, Lupita Nyong'o. Photo by Joan Marcus

Saycon Sengbloh, Lupita Nyong’o. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Stanford Friedman

If you thought that playwright Danai Gurira’s drama, Eclipsed, deals with a solar event, well, you were wrong. But the major planets that orbit this stellar production are worth noting. Ms. Gurira is best known for portraying Michonne, the machete-wielding zombie killer who wanders a slightly futuristic planet Earth on The Walking Dead, one of cable TV’s most-watched shows. And the play’s best known name, Lupita Nyong’o, most recently voiced the character of Maz Kanata, from the planet Takodana, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the second highest grossing film ever. That these two talents would come together on a project makes obvious business sense. That they would do so to tell the horrific story of the Liberian Civil War, and its brutal effect on the women who lived through it, is as surprising as it is brave. Backed by a dynamic ensemble cast, the production proves that when it comes to human suffering, science fiction has nothing over the realities of recent world history.

The play is set in 2003, a time when militarized rebels were sweeping through towns, creating pop-up military bases, kidnapping women and children as they went along. Gurira goes large by aiming small, focusing on one tiny shack in a compound run by a commander whom we never see, but whose force is much in evidence. Three women occupy the space:  Wife #1 (Saycon Sengbloh) who has been held there the longest and who has grown nearly stoic. Wife #3 (Pascale Armand), who is pregnant and fiercely alive, and a new arrival, The Girl (Lupita Nyong’o), whom Wife #1 tries to protect, to no avail. That the women refer to themselves as wives is both a coping mechanism and an admission of defeat. Throughout the play, one or another is called in by the commander to be summarily raped. It’s an event so common that the women even have a designated washrag that they share, with which to wipe themselves clean afterward. The ladies are bonded, but also competitive. The numerical hierarchy that’s been established reflects not only their relative importance to the warlord kidnapper, but also dictates who gets first pick when new batches of clothing arrive, never mind where those dresses have come from.

Missing from the collective is wife #2 (Zainab Jah). It turns out that she has opted to become a soldier, a savage gambit that spares her from being raped, but which forces her to gather up women to face that fate. When she shows up at the shack, The Girl discovers this new choice and we watch, over a period of months, as her tolerance with being a victim morphs into the devastation of becoming the one with blood on her hands. Nyong’o beautifully absorbs and reflects the tug-of-war surrounding her: Jah’s feral portrayal of a woman warrior fending for herself on one side, Sengbloh’s stern but motherly compassion on the other. Meanwhile, much of the joking (Yes, there are plenty of laughs in the script.) falls upon Ms. Armand’s shoulders. Staging comic relief amid serial rape is no mean feat, but under Liesl Tommy’s careful and wise direction, her humor plays out as a sign of hope that is as much a salve for the women as it is a breath of relief for the audience.

Gurira fills the play with symbols of power: a gun, a book, and even that washrag is vested with importance. But none are more telling than the characters’ usage of names. Women soldiers give themselves “names of war,” while the captors can barely stand to remember their birth names. This is brought home by the appearance of Rita (Akosua Busia) a peace worker who tries to get them to revert to their former identities, though it turns out that even she has an ulterior motive.

Originally produced at The Public Theater, the staging probably felt more intense in that smaller venue. Scenic designer Clint Ramos rightfully does not enlarge the shack, with its bullet pocked walls, for Broadway. Instead, tall, narrow tree limbs fill out the empty areas of the stage. A generous interpretation would be that they are meant to resemble the bars of a prison, or are representative of the land being stripped bare, but they seem too simple a fix for such a complex and disturbing world as this.

Eclipsed – By Danai Gurira; Directed by Liesl Tommy.

WITH: Lupita Nyong’o (The Girl), Saycon Sengbloh (Wife #1), Akosua Busia (Rita), Zainab Jah (Wife #2) and Pascale Armand (Wife #3).

Clint Ramos, Scenic and Costume Design; Jen Schriever, Lighting Design; Diane DiVita, Production Stage Manager. Produced on Broadway by Stephen Byrd, Alia Jones-Harvey, Paula Marie Black, Willette Klausner, Carole Shorenstein Hays and The Public Theater. At the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St. 212-239-6200, Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes.