When 276 Nigerian schoolgirls were stolen from their beds by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram in April 2014, it made international headlines: public figures from First Lady Michelle Obama to Amy Poehler joined the viral campaign to publicize the girls’ plight and for several weeks #BringBackOurGirls flared across social media, tweeted and retweeted upwards of 3 million times. Then like most Twitter flashpoints, it faded out, subsumed by the inevitable next wave of hashtag activism, pop-culture hot takes, and cat memes. Nearly two years later, 219 of those girls are still missing — and so of course are thousands more women and children whose individual fates don’t register in the global newsfeed. Eclipsed, set in Liberia circa approximately 2003, fights to give depth and context to these untold stories through the eyes of five fictional women, and it’s almost impossible to fault its intentions (if not always its execution) as a powerful piece of stagecraft.
That a female-driven drama about sex slavery and genocide could make it to Broadway at all — the show already had a sold-out run last year at The Public Theater — is at least partly a testament to the combined star power of playwright Danai Gurira (who has also portrayed fan favorite Michonne on AMC’s The Walking Dead for five seasons) and the luminous Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o. It’s not exactly surprising that Nyong’o is the sole face on both sides of the Playbill (the back cover is a fragrance ad for the French beauty brand Lancome, which she represents); she is after all one of the most celebrated young actresses working right now. But Eclipsed is really an ensemble piece, not a showcase for one. And technically Nyong’o is actually No. 4: The newest fourth “wife” of a rebel commander, she spends her days in a bullet-pocked shack alongside No. 1 (Saycon Sengbloh) and No. 3 (Pascale Armand). With nothing much to do beyond cook and clean their small, bare space and wait for the man who imprisons them to demand their services — male characters are only referred to or pantomimed; none ever actually appear onstage — the women gossip and bicker and slowly start to reveal more about the lives they lived before captivity. (Eventually we learn their birth names too, but they almost always use numbers instead — a clear symbol of how personal identity, along with physical safety and free will, have been taken from them.)
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Show-goers expecting the script’s tone to match its subject matter might be surprised by the first act; it reads more like a small-scale domestic comedy, with only occasional, oblique references to the grimness of the women’s circumstances. There’s an ongoing gag about Bill Clinton, whose biography they find in a pile of discarded spoils brought to them by the commander, and even a few extended slapstick riffs involving an uncooperative hand mirror and one character’s increasingly ludicrous series of wigs. The arrival of both a visiting peace activist named Rita (Akosua Busia) and the Uzi-toting No. 2 (played with fantastic flash and swagger by Zainab Jah) starts to bring the stakes more into focus. Rita is the maternal voice of reason, pointing out the political realities of their situation and prodding the girls to remember their past so that they can begin to find their way back again. No. 2 has another kind of solution: Pick up a gun and join the fight. “I was a wife like you,” she tells No. 4 scornfully. “Then I wake up.” The only way to survive without being at the mercy of a man, she says, is to “work with the system. And right now the system is war.”
What follows in the next act is much tougher and more sinister (though not nearly as brutal as, say, Carey Fukanaga’s similarly themed 2015 film Beasts of No Nation; again, most of the violence is inferred or happens offstage, with one memorable exception). And it gives Nyong’o a chance to dig deeper into the role, transforming her from a tentative, sometimes petulant teenager into a fiercely conflicted instrument of war. She’s captivating to watch, as are all the women in the cast, even when the script doesn’t quite rise up to meet them. If the first half can sometimes feel too baggy and broadly played, and the second seems to rush through its most affecting moments, the overall impact is still startling. The Kenyan-raised Nyong’o and Gurira, whose parents emigrated from Zimbabwe, obviously shouldn’t have to carry the weight of representing their entire continent for a Western audience on Golden’s stage. But Eclipsed does open a window on a world we rarely get to see this intimately, and they deliver it so gracefully that the play’s flaws feel less consequential than the resonating force of its story. B+