It’s two o’clock in the afternoon and the audience is taking their seats at the John Golden Theatre. The lights come up on a bullet-ridden, one room shack. Two women, clothed in mismatched and dirty garments, sit on the stage. One braids the hair of the other, and they are quickly identified as Wife No. 1 and Wife No. 3. The audience braces themselves for an expected act of violence, some shocking wartime brutality, but all that comes is banter. Wife No. 3 is fretting over her wig, and Wife No. 1 patiently attempts to quell the impending breakdown. A burst of uncomfortable laughter rises from the crowd, and soon the entire audience is in stitches. Many are surprised by themselves; this is not a show you are supposed to laugh at. But, within these first five minutes, the play has taken a necessary and fearless stance. Victims of violence, refugees in horrible situations, are often deprived of their own humanity and reduced to one-dimensional figures of tragedy. With this opening scene, Eclipsed, written masterfully by Danai Gurira, has reminded the first world elite sitting in the audience that even the sister wives of a Liberian warlord can have a sense of humor.
The fearlessness of Eclipsed does not end with its subject matter. When it premiered on March 6, 2016 to rave reviews, Eclipsed became the first play to feature a cast of exclusively black women. Directed by Liesl Tommy and written by actress Danai Gurira, the play follows five women who get caught up in the Second Liberian Civil War. Saycon Sengbloh and Pascale Armand portray the aforementioned Wife No. 1 and Wife No. 3, respectively. The two are quickly joined onstage by Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyong’o, who plays The Girl. While Wives No. 1 and No.3 have undoubtedly called the shack home for quite some time, The Girl is a newcomer. Played with a combination of raw fear and restless energy, The Girl enters the stage from under the grimy plastic tub which Wife No. 1 has been using as a chair. They are hiding her from the Commanding Officer. And when the C.O., who never actually appears on stage, comes calling, back under the tub she goes. The reason for her hiding becomes clear when he arrives and his wives lose every trace of their vibrant personalities. Backs straight and arms rigid by their sides, they stand motionless before he selects No. 3 to follow him off stage. When she returns moments later with a lopsided wig, it is obvious that he has raped her, and that it’s far from the first time.
The night goes on without incident, and Nyong’o’s Girl soon reveals herself to be quite precocious. She excitedly rattles off riddles and stories that leave the audience impressed. It’s time for another reminder; a war refugee can indeed be intelligent. Their plan to hide The Girl is foiled when she goes outside in the night to use the restroom. The C.O. discovers and rapes her, and proceeds to make her Wife No. 4. As she assimilates to life in the compound, her personality becomes more clear. As Wife No. 3 notes, she seems unaffected by her assault. More willing to bury her emotions, she instead becomes enthralled in a book she finds about Bill Clinton. The only one of the wives who can read, she gets the others hooked, and they eagerly look forward to nightly readings. In a simultaneously childlike and gossipy manner, hey muse about whether or not Hillary Clinton would take in Monica Lewinsky as Wife No. 2. But, as Nyong’o displays with subtle perfection, Wife No. 4 is unravelling.
The absence of Wife No. 2 is soon explained when she makes an unexpected return. Clad in glamorous, early-2000’s styles, with an AK-47 slung casually over her shoulder, she has escaped sexual slavehood by joining the C.O.’s army. In one of the most powerful scenes, she explains, “When you have this [the gun], nobody messes with you.” The message clearly resonates with Wife No. 4, because, when the curtain opens for Act 2, she herself is brandishing a weapon.
The play culminates in an intense final scene where Rita, the fifth woman and a peace activist working to end the war, attempts to get the women to flee with her from the compound. “What are your names?” she begs. She knows that they’ve been long forgotten, and she wants the women to realize that if the C.O. has stolen such a vital part of their identity from them, there is no way to defend or stay with him. In a show stopping monologue, she recounts the horrible atrocities of her life. First, of her rapes, but then of her actions as a soldier. She shamefully confesses that she allowed other girls to go through what she went through, encouraged it in fact, just to escape such treatment herself. She endured a great deal, but it is what she dealt out that will haunt her forever.
— Charlie Hobbs, Staff Writer