In the recent history of the West African country of Liberia, women have played a central role: A women’s peace movement was central in the project to end fifteen years of civil war. In the elections that followed the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement in August 2003, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first female elected head of state in Africa, and she was reelected to Liberia’s presidency in 2011, the same year she won the Nobel Peace Prize (sharing it with two other women leaders from Africa and the Middle East).
But Danai Gurira’s play Eclipsed is more interested in the stories of Liberian women on the micro than the macro level. It’s about a group of four women whose lives are upended by war: their villages looted, their parents or siblings killed, themselves kidnapped or raped or forced to flee their homes. (The play does include a representative of the “peace women,” a figure who’s clearly from a different world than the rest of the characters both sociologically and economically.) The women (none of whose names we learn until almost the end of the play) are the three existing wives of a local warlord, and the young girl whom they at first try to protect from him, but who ends up becoming wife #4.
These women have less than nothing; everything of their former lives has been stripped away from them and they depend on the “kindness” and goodwill of a violent warlord; the play’s few moments of pleasure come when they receive bundles of clothes and household goods pillaged from villages looted by the soldiers. It’s grim stuff, but Gurira treats it with a matter-of-fact-ness that stops the piece from feeling either exploitative or manipulative of liberal guilt (this is helped by the play’s setting of 2003 rather than the present).
Wife #1 (Saycon Sengbloh) is the “old lady” of the group – all of twenty-five, she thinks, and she’s been with the warlord a long time. She runs not just the household but the domestic life of the entire compound, and being the property of the commanding officer at least means that no one else is allowed to rape or beat her. Wife #3 (Pascale Armand) is her younger compatriot, pregnant and still struggling for her place in this ecosystem. What power she has comes through the warlord’s attraction to her, but his “jumping on her” constantly feels like a high price to pay. #2 (Zainab Jah) has taken a different tactic: she’s embraced the war: she’s picked up a gun and become a soldier (and an entrepreneur, using raids as ways to score goods to sell).
So when a fifteen-year-old girl on the run (Lupita Nyong’o) stumbles into their camp, the first instinct of #1 is to protect her from the soldiers, hiding her under a washtub whenever they pass by. Still, it’s inevitable that she will be discovered, and one of the play’s (first) heartbreaking moments is the simple resignation with which she accepts being raped as the price of this small measure of safety. (It’s the first of many moments of subtle, surprising character work from Nyong’o, too; you can see even a small quotient of relief as she confesses what’s happened to #1: at least it’s one less thing to anticipate with dread.)
But there’s something different about The Girl (#4), something that all the other women slowly tease out: she’s had some education and can read, unlike the rest of them. She had ambitions for her life – to be a member of parliament, perhaps, or a doctor; dreams that #1, #2, and #3 find almost puzzling, and certainly irrelevant. These are clues to a past that is gone, a past that has no part here.
This slowly growing bond among the women, beautifully portrayed by all four actors – #1, #3, and #4 on the one hand, and then #4’s covert relationship with #2, who’s trying to recruit her by sparking her anger and her rebellious spirit – makes the play. Director Liesl Tommy does wonderful work with this very strong ensemble and though some of the staging choices seemed a little murky, that’s a small quibble when the acting is this good.
Lupita Nyong’o, in her New York stage debut, gives the character of the Girl with a naivete that she never quite loses; she’s a survivor now, but she also had a more sheltered upbringing than the others, and that’s a constant shading in Nyong’o’s performance. Pascale Armand, as #2, has an irrepressible quality that she knows she needs to tamp down for her own safety, but she refuses to make that compromise: she’s often petty and greedy but also seems to retain access to joy that the others have lost. Saycon Sengbloh, as #1, on the other hand, has maintained a gentleness – not weakness, but you see her deep affection for the others in her every decision. Akosua Busia, as the peace activist, is no saint: there’s a faint hint of condescension camouflaged underneath the genuinely good work she is doing; she’s clearly got an ulterior motive, though it takes a long time to tease it out. And Zainab Jah, as #2, was a standout even in this distinguished company: kinetically fierce – a knife-edge of a performer who bristles with danger. Her scenes with Nyong’o are highlights for them both.
In some ways, Eclipsed is a very simple play, and one that could be set in the context of many civil wars. But there is something exciting about simply seeing a piece whose cast, writer, and director are all women of colour, and specifically in this case, most of whom have roots in Africa (Gurira, Tommy, Nyong’o, Busia, and Jah have all spent much of their lives in Africa; Sengbloh’s father is Liberian), telling a story that is particular to this time and place, and yet speaks more broadly to the terrible things that continue to happen to women during wartime.