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A CurtainUp Review
Eclipsed . . .on Broadway
By Elyse Sommer
Most of Familiar's characters have African backgrounds, but we meet them in this country and the plot set-up is, per the title, familiar— a family wedding with lots of pre-nuptial problems. Despite tackling serious issues of assimilation, the emphasis is on comedy. Eclipsed, on the other hand, takes us to Liberia towards the end of a devastating 14-year war, and despite some comic moments, the emphasis here is on the tragic experiences and survival tactics of a group of its female victims. And so, if your entertainment budget and time cover just one Gurira play, go for Eclipsed, if you want to see an unforgettable but often painful to watch ensemble headlined by a dynamic film star and are not put off by often hard to understand accents.For something less disturbing, with easier to "get" accents and unique but easy to identify with characters, pick Familiar.
Having Lupita Nyong'o as part of the all-female ensemble undoubtedly contributed to the play's success at the Public Theater and is again packing the house on 45th Street. Featuring Nyong'o name as the only one above the program's title is understandable since the essential theme about the choices war forces on its victims, revolves around her character's ultimate decision about whether to join her victimizers or save her humanity. That said, this remains an ensemble triumph, so hurrah, that the transfer production includes the entire original cast, as well as the designers and helmer Liesl Tommy.
I wish I could say that since the play's earlier productions in Los Angeles and Connecticut, the horrors of lengthy wars and the awful way young lives are lost and dehumanized has abated. But outstanding as this play still is as a testament to the women who helped Liberia get rid of its dictator, the 300 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamist militarists mentioned when I saw the play at the Public are still missing. And, sad but true, killing and dehumanizing wars have in fact escalated throughout the world. A news program I watched just before leaving for my re-visit to Eclipsed feature a report on how Islamists have become clever enough to recruit children to voluntarily join them and, worse yet, with the encouragement of their mothers.
Except for these comments and the new theater (which luckily isn't one of Broadway's super-sized venues) there's little to add to my original review. What follows is therefore a repeat posting, except for address and performance date details.
Danai Gurira's Eclipsed follows a group of women abducted and made "wives" of a rebel commander during the long Liberian civil war. While her characters are fictional, their stories are gathered from the all too real history of Liberia as outlined in the program's helpful two-page time line section. The fact that enough of this strife-torn country's women not only survived the horrors of sex slavery but actually gathered the courage to unite and finally end the seemingly endless strife has all the makings of a heroic feminist drama.
The playwright has certainly created characters with the sort of power — whether to muster the will to adapt to and survive horrendous mistreatmentment or to put up a fight — for Eclipsed to qualify as a tribute to all women, and to give special recognition to the voices of African women.
The situation she's put these women in couldn't be grimmer: A shabby hut, devoid of even the most basic amenities, houses the entrapped women. They've been robbed even of their names and identified only by their status with the unseen C.O. who summons them for sex according to his mood.
As the play opens we do learn all their names. Thus we see Helena or wife #1, who's been there so long she can't even remember her age, and the visibly pregnant Bessie or #3 try to hide a young girl in order to save her from becoming #4. Maima, or wife #2, has managed to escape and become a soldier in a liberation movement and so seems likely to become Eclipsed's heroine.
But hold on. The gifted Ms. Gurira (she's an actress as well as a playwright, ably doing both in her her 2005 collaboration with Nikkole Salter, In the Continuum ), has given her play a complexity that goes much deeper. As we get to know more about the women who make up the ensemble, a picture emerges of the troubling reality about the painful choices war forces on its victims. Some like Bessie submit and adapt. Others like Maima become warriors but in assuming a hero's bravery, she also embodies the old mantra about how power corrupts. Another character, a local woman named Rita, who believes in getting both rebels and dictators to agree to peace talks (as the members of LURD, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy actually did).
All this sounds polemical and depressing? Again, don't let the above deceive you into expecting these various characters to come off as types, or for Eclipsed to be more preachy history lesson than entertainment. True, it's depressing that bad things like this still happen to innocent young girls —just think of those 300 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamist militarists and, except for one, all still missing.
However, these are richly colorful, fully dimensional characters. Their interchanges are also often quite funny. Some of the most amusing scenes entail the Girl, who didn't escape being abused by the C.O. reads to the women from a book about the life of President Bill Clinton who they find especially intriguing, given his own #1 Hillary and #2, intern Monica Lewinsky.
Best of all, Liesl Tommy, who also directed the 2009 production at Yale Repertory Theatre, has once again put together a beautiful and smartly paced production that is reminiscent of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize winning Ruined. And she's drawn remarkable ensemble excellence from the current cast. Pascale Armand and Zainab Jah reprise their roles as Bessie and Helena. Lupita Nyong'o who plays The Girl has been making a name for herself as a screen actress (notably in the award-winning 12 Years a Slave), fits right in with this superb group.
The changes Clint Ramos's set undergoes in the second act are breathtaking and excitingly intensified by Jen Schriever's lights and Broken Chord's original music and sound design. Ramos's costumes are equally fine. The heavily accented speech takes some getting used to but as coached by Beth McGuire the authenticity is worth the listener's effort.
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Eclipsed by Danai Gurira
Directed by Liesl Tommy
Cast: Pascale Armand (Wife #3, Bessie), Saycon Sengbloh (Wife #1, Helena), Lupita Nyong'o (The Girl), Zainab Jah (Wife #2, Maima), Akosua Busia (Rita)
Scenic and Costume Design: Clint Ramos
Lighting Design: Jen Schriever
Original Music & Sound Design: Broken Chord
Hair and Wig Design: Cookie Jordan
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelley-Sordelet
Vocal and Dialect Coach: Beth McGuire
Stage Manager: Diane Divita
Running time: 2 hours with a 15 minute intermission
Golden Theatre 252 W. 45th Street 212-239-6200
2/23/16; opening 3/06/16.
Re-reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 3/03 press preview
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