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A CurtainUp Review

The play, with its cast intact, will be moving to Broadway's Golden Theater in February. With its two musical transfers both doing well, this adds a straight drama to the Public's hit parade.
Yes! You got to tap dat powa oh. You tink God give all dat to you for notin'? You tink God letyou survive for notin'? You got to do de tings you called to do oh. Is dis it? Picking firewood in de bush? Dis whot your powa for?— Maima
Pascale Armand, Saycon Sengbloh, and Lupita Nyong'o (Photo: Joan Marcus)
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 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 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 sound polemical and depressing? Again, don't let the above deceive you into expecting these various characters to come off as types, or 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. She 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.

An interesting background note: Both the Playwrights Horizon production of In the Continuum and a Los Angeles production of Eclipsed were directed by none other than the playwright of the Public Theater's latest big hit, the hilarious Barbecue. Where but on Lafayette Street can you go and be assured of such stimulating theater?

Eclipsed by Danai Gurira
Directed by Liesl Tommy

Cast: Pascale Armand (Bessie), Saycon Sengbloh (Helena), Lupita Nyong'O (The Girl), Zainab Jah (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
Vocal and Dialect Coach: Beth McGuire
Stage Manager: Diane Divita
Running time: 2 hours with a 15 minute intermission
From 9/29/15; opening 10/14/15; closing 11/29/15
Public Theater's LuEsther Hall 420 Lafayette St.
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