There is a bullet-pocked shelter. There are colorful baubles hanging on a wall. A lamp on a rickety table in the corner. And an Oscar-winning actress under a dirty plastic tub in the middle of the stage.
A devastatingly simple set, subtle touches of everydayness, and a powerful ensemble cast are just a few of the elements that combine to make Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, now on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre, an absolute sensation. While the play shines with moments of resilience and sisterhood, it is at its core about the brutal choices women are forced to make in wartime: how to make it through another day, how to salvage a scrap of dignity when all sense of decency is gone from the world.
The play opens with the seemingly unremarkable act of one woman braiding another’s hair, but we quickly learn that their ragged clothes and shabby surroundings are not just marks of poverty but of conflict: the tail end of Liberia’s second civil war (1999-2003). The women on stage are the “wives” of the ubiquitous but never-seen “C.O,” the commanding officer of a rebel army who routinely rapes his captives. “Number 1” (Saycon Sengbloh) and “Number 3” (Pascale Armand) are sheltering a young girl (Lupita Nyong’o) who has escaped a marauding band of rebels in the hopes that she will not become “Number 4.” This hope is quickly dashed when the girl is raped one night as she ventures outside of the bunker to “do wet.” With that, she is initiated into life in “the compound,” as they call it, which the characters believe is a safer place for a girl than the lawless world “out there,” where she might be raped by multiple soldiers—instead of just one.
It is this vicious logic, and the illusion of choice, that carries the audience through an exploration of survival tactics women are forced to adopt in wartime, such as speaking in a coded language that dulls the sting of reality. The “wives” never use the word “rape”—instead they talk of “laying with the C.O.” They don’t use real names—either an attempt to avoid memories of life before confinement, or a mark of internalized dehumanization—referring to one another throughout as Number 1, Number 3, and Number 4. They develop a degree of intimacy that is perhaps crucial to sharing a small space and daily horrors: They use the same sodden rag to wipe themselves down after each ordeal. And they bicker, as sisters might, over chores, clothes, and the pecking order in their little world.
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Each time it ventures too close to an impossibly dark abyss, the play rescues itself with moments of lightness and biting comedy—a testament both to Gurira’s skillful script-writing and Liesl Tommy’s direction. The trio’s discovery of a romance novel (which turns out to be a biography of Bill Clinton) brings frequent reprieve from the fog of war, especially their penchant for referring to Monica Lewinsky as Clinton’s “Number 2” wife. And even Number 3’s unwanted pregnancy—the result of one of her many forced encounters with the C.O.—offers moments of humor as her belligerence grows along with her belly and her increasingly frantic attempts to style her hair. But we are never allowed to forget. Just as the banter begins to lull the audience into the illusion of comfort, the lights dim and the women scramble to stand to attention, hands behind their backs, facing the wings where, presumably, the C.O. is deliberating whom to spend the night with. Silently, one or the other points a finger at her chest to verify that she is the chosen one, and walks off stage toward the commander’s quarters.
The mood changes with the arrival of the elusive wife Number 2 (Zainab Jah), a gun-toting, jeans-wearing firecracker of a character—based on the Liberian freedom fighter Black Diamond—who has escaped the compound by joining a rebel faction. She comes bearing gifts (cassava, clothing), which Number 1, as the ruler of the roost, rejects on account that they are the spoils of war acquired by stealing from, or perhaps killing, their former owners. The recalcitrant Number 2, who has chosen the nom de guerre Disgruntled, is unfazed by Number 1’s hostility and succeeds in luring Number 4, who in the script is simply named “The Girl,” away from the compound and onto the front lines of war with promises of freedom and power.
While The Girl and Disgruntled take the audience through the terrible motions of raiding villages believed to be loyal to “the monkey Charles Taylor” (the then-president of Liberia whose ouster became the stated goal of two rebel groups), we are introduced to Rita (Akosua Busia), a peace activist dressed in blinding white garments ushering in news that the conflict’s end is near. Her character appears to be a composite of the Liberian women who campaigned for an end to the fighting and played a key role in stemming the 14-year conflict that claimed some 200,000 lives in the West African nation. Nicknamed Mama Peace, Rita heralds change—the entire set rotates with her arrival—and attempts to prepare the women for the coming ceasefire. It is through her efforts to do so that we learn how attached the women have grown to the war: Number 1 to her place at the top of a miserable pyramid; Number 3 to the C.O.—“he’s the father of my baby”; and Disgruntled to her gun and the glamour of armed militancy.
At one point, when she is ordered to leave the compound, Number 1 remarks while bundling up her scarce belongings: “I don’ know what GO means.” It is one of the most powerful lines in the play, symbolizing both the entrenchment of captivity and the enduring impact of trauma, from which there is seldom any escape, in the play as in real life.
The war grinds to an end in a crescendo of fighting in Act II. We see it through The Girl’s eyes as she stands alone on the stage reciting the Lord’s Prayer, omitting the word “heaven” from her supplication, as though she has forgotten the word exists (or is perhaps unable to invoke it in such hellish circumstances). She then delivers a shattering monologue about witnessing a fatal gang-rape and personally tossing the dead girl’s body in a river. It is the climax of one of the play’s major themes, the severing and re-forging of bonds between mothers and their children: We see it in The Girl adopting the name “Mother’s Blessing” as her combat title, even though her actions as a rebel make her wonder if she is cursed, rather than blessed. We see it in Mama Peace’s search for her own daughter under the guise of campaigning for a negotiated settlement to the conflict. And perhaps, most poignantly, we see it in Number 3’s early motherhood: “I never felt a love like [this] before,” she tells The Girl toward the end of the play, while rocking her newborn close to her chest. “I kill and curse for her.”
Just as the play opens with the notion of choice—with Number 1 and Number 2 deciding to offer The Girl protection—so too does its conclusion mirror this theme. For Disgruntled, even as she is rounding up young girls as sex slaves for soldiers, the choice is simple: Feed the hunters, rather than be eaten. For the “wives” in the compound, starvation and routine sexual abuse represent a better option than being “out in the bush” at the mercy of Liberia’s notorious rebels. By the final scene we have learned the names of all but one of the “wives” (Number 1 is Helena, Number 2 is Maima, and Number 3 is Bessie) and—for the time being, at least—the paths they have chosen. Helena throws in her lot with the peace activists, hoping to start fresh in a new camp; Maima remains convinced that only weapons and ruthlessness can save her; and Bessie will stay with the C.O., her tormentor and now the father of her child. Only Number 4—The Girl, Mother’s Blessing—is torn. Nameless and choiceless, she is the last face we see as the lights dim and she stands suspended at a crossroads, a gun in one hand and a book in the other.
As a production, Eclipsed has broken several important barriers. In an interview with Access Hollywood, Nyong’o claims this is the first time a play written by, directed by, and starring all Black women has been on Broadway. It took its time arriving in New York: In a conversation with the New York Times last month, Nyong’o explained that the show stalled at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2009 because, “Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined was on then. And there was a feeling that there wasn’t room for two plays about Africa and war to exist at the same time.”
Now that it is here—on a limited Broadway run through June 19—Eclipsed is making room for itself by transcending all historical, political, and gendered boxes and presenting a deeply empathetic and even universal tale of resilience. Asked by the Times back in 2009 whether her play was a political one or a feminist one, Gurira reportedly declined to choose. “In very many ways, my focus as an artist is about getting African women’s voices out there,” she said. “If that ends up having a label attached, I don’t mind, but that’s not how I approach my work.”