In 2003, at the end of the Second Liberian Civil War, three women wearing American hand-me-downs live in a shanty as the wives of a commanding officer for the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy. For most of Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, they are referred to by their titles rather than their given names: Number One (Saycon Sengbloh) is the oldest, around twenty-five, and serves as a matriarch to the family. Number Two (Akosua Busia), who guesses she is nineteen, is pregnant with the commanding officer’s baby and hopes it doesn’t have “a face like dat ugly fada of it.” The third, called only The Girl (Lupita Nyong’o), hides with the two wives before being discovered and becoming a wife herself.
During the first act, there is a Beckettian quality to the action: these women, who have been stripped of everything except their sexual and domestic utility, wait for the war to be over. In the play’s most chilling moments, they stand to attention, silent, as the unseen C.O. walks by their shack, occasionally picking one to “lay wit’.” The Girl, who can do “all dem book ting,” helps pass the time by reading aloud from a biography of “Bill Clinto,” the “big man o’ America.” (The book also doubles as her pillow.) But the introduction of two alternate role models disrupts this pseudo-stability. Maima (Zainab Jah), a former wife of the C.O., returns to tout her liberation from the patriarchy as a soldier: “If I got gun, don’ nobody gonna fuck wit’ me no more.” Rita (Akosua Busia), a member of the Liberian Women Initiative for Peace, offers emancipation through education and nonviolent political agitation.
Ms. Gurira’s play is smart and understated and avoids the kinds of clichés we tend to find in works of this sort: her characters are not helpless victims, the figures of possible salvation are not well-meaning Westerners, and the oppression operates through silence and complicity as much as it does through violence and coercion. The placement of the C.O. offstage is a masterful touch, suggesting that his presence in their lives is simultaneously panoptic and negligible. Ms. Nyong’o is excellent in her Broadway debut, bringing a blank childishness to The Girl even as she eventually murders without apparent compunction. But this hardly separates her from her co-stars: Ms. Sengbloh is appropriately weary and resigned (“I no know who I is out of war”) and Ms. Busia has a wonderful comic sense even as her subject matter remains entrenched in rape and bloodshed.
American response to war outside our purview tends toward either apathy or fits of passion followed by amnesia. In either case, we tend to dehumanize the people involved, reducing them to hollow categories of perpetrators and victims. Eclipsed is precisely the kind of work that precludes this reaction, forcing a confrontation between audience and subject matter without offering the easy pressure relief valve of cynical hopelessness or self-congratulatory liberalism.
Eclipsed runs through June 19th at the Golden Theatre. 252 W. 45th Street New York, NY. 2 hours 20 minutes. One intermission.