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Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira on making Broadway history with 'Eclipsed'

The powerful political drama — the first Broadway play written by, directed by, and starring women — is headed to the stage.

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RICHARD PHIBBS for EW

A few weeks before the March 6 opening of Eclipsed on Broadway, playwright Danai Gurira and star Lupita Nyong’o took a break from rehearsals and sat down to chat with EW. The play — harrowing, heartbreaking, with glimmers of humor — tells the story of four captive “wives” of a rebel officer during the Liberian civil war. The longtime friends discussed the show — directed by Liesl Tommy and costarring Saycon Sengbloh, Pascale Armand, Akosua Busia, and Zainab Jah — and the power of trust and sisterhood.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did you get the idea for Eclipsed?

DANAI GURIRA: I read a newspaper article in 2003 about Black Diamond, a revered rebel soldier. I found her fascinating. I grew up in southern Africa, but I had never seen a depiction of an African woman like her—that began the journey.

LUPITA NYONG’O: What I love about Danai’s play is that it invites you in. So you may not have known anything [about Liberia or its civil war] when it begins, but the play welcomes you into this compound. You learn something very deep. You’re shocked, your mind is open, and your heart is broken. Where you may have known facts, now you have feelings.

When did you two first meet?

NYONG’O: At the Obie Awards in 2007. She’s an African artist so I was aware of her and had seen her work in The Visitor.

GURIRA: Yale and Tisch were fighting over her [for their graduate programs], and Tisch had assigned me the job to — 

NYONG’O: Woo me!

GURIRA: [Laughs] To encourage her to make the right choice. But we knew we were in trouble, and Yale won.

NYONG’O: And then the first role I was assigned when I got to Yale was as an understudy in Eclipsed. One of the things I had been coming to terms with in choosing which school I would go to was the fact that I would be doing a lot of Eurocentric work. Then I arrive from Kenya and I get this incredible, groundbreaking Liberian play. It was manna from heaven! I made a promise to myself: I have to do this play one day.

So how did the 2015 run at the Public Theater come together?

GURIRA: Lupita emailed me and said, “Let’s do this.” I was like, “Uh, of course!”

NYONG’O: Every time I saw her I’d say, “I want to do Eclipsed!” I was hungry to be back in a rehearsal room and to create a story with a group of artists.

GURIRA: I saw that she mentioned it in her first Vogue cover story, and I thought, Oh, she really does want to do it!

How has the play evolved as it’s moved from Off Broadway?

NYONG’O: Because we’re the same ensemble, there’s a level of trust and ease in which we work together. This is like a mountain to climb every night. But we know the mountain and it’s allowed us to find new natural and surprising things.

GURIRA: I feel a great comfort hearing that. The playwright has to step away — you want to see it fly on its own. I can’t always be in the room with them.

NYONG’O: You did the foundational work, and we always have that. So you’re always in the room.

GURIRA: That’s so sweet, Lupita. I appreciate that.

NYONG’O: It’s true — this has been a godsend of a production because of the level of love and respect in the room. We genuinely like each other, which helps. This is the kind of play where you need a sisterhood.

GURIRA: Oh, for sure. Like the scene where Lupita gets her ass kicked? [Laughs] There’s an insane amount of trust involved because it really is like flying without a net. That’s because there’s such a sisterhood.

This is the first time that a Broadway production has had a female playwright, a female director, and an all-female cast.

GURIRA: It’s crazy, right? It shouldn’t be an event. We should have far more of this scenario on Broadway. But it is an event, so we should make it clear that this should be celebrated and happen more.

Lupita, now that you are actually playing this part, is it everything you thought it would be?

NYONG’O: I can confess now that though I always told people I wanted to do Eclipsed, I did not pick up the script again until it was actually happening. In our first read-through before the Public run I thought, What did I do? [Laughs]

GURIRA: I remember that — you were like, Whoa.

NYONG’O: What I love about my work as an actor is that there’s always that moment of panic before you step into something. Because you’re stepping into the unknown. So to have this opportunity and to do this with women I deeply respect has been invaluable. I feel full. Challenged. Oooh, do I feel challenged [laughs] every day…. But it’s a joyful toll. It’s wonderful.

This article appears in the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now (or buy it here).