We've seen plenty of wartime dramas in the battlefield. We've also seen, especially recently, several plays and films about veterans' experiences upon returning home (including the just-opened Ugly Lies the Bone). In Eclipsed, playwright Danai Gurira shows us a different side of war: The women who endure while the fighting rages on, and how they help bring about peace.
Eclipsed begins in Liberia, circa March 2003, about six months before the civil war concluded. We begin to get to know Helena (Saycon Sengbloh), Bessie (Pascale Armand) and The Girl (Lupita Nyong'o). Helena, called Number 1 because she is the commanding officer's first "wife," and Bessie, Number 2, are trying to hide The Girl and keep her from becoming Number 4. We later meet Number 3, Maima (Zainab Jah), who, rather than sit around in a house waiting for her "husband" to select her for one-sided sex, has taken up arms and feels empowered as a soldier out in the battlefields. Later, we meet Rita (Akosua Busia), one of the famous "Women in White" who try to broker peace among the many factions.
Gurira has written a complex and bracing (and surprisingly funny) play. In depicting these women's choices (I'll use this term loosely), she forces us to think about what is actually empowering. Is it freeing to simply take control and make a choice, even if the choice is to allow yourself to be subjugated by others (in particular, men)? Are we better armed with guns or books, violence or knowledge?
The estimable cast, directed by Liesl Tommy, brings depth and sensitivity to their roles. (In addition to Oscar winner Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave), I was particularly impressed with Broadway favorite Sengbloh (Hair, Holler If Ya Hear Me).) They allow us to (try to) understand what might be going on in these women's minds, even if we don't agree with their actions, and embolden us to think deeply about our own freedoms and role in this world.
Of note: Nyong'o is being marketed at the star of the show, and that's understandable. It can be a Herculean task to get people into a theatre without a marquee draw. But make no mistake: This is an ensemble piece, and Nyong'o is gracious and generous in ceding the spotlight to her colleagues.