NEW YORK (AP) – Lupita Nyong'o is a red carpet darling, effortlessly stunning in a Calvin Klein gown or in advertisements as the face of Lancome. So it may come as something of a shock to see her make her Broadway debut in a cheap cloth skirt and filthy "Rugrats" T-shirt.
Nyong'o loses herself utterly in the searing and stunning play "Eclipsed," which opened Sunday at the Golden Theatre, also marking the important Broadway bows for playwright Danai Gurira and director Liesl Tommy.
Oscar-winner Nyong'o ("12 Years A Slave") plays a 15-year-old known only as The Girl who finds herself enslaved in a rebel compound during a bloody civil war in Africa. The five-member cast — all women — is a true ensemble and must not be missed.
The play is set during the end of Liberia's 14-year civil war, which ended in 2003. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor and rebel groups opposed to him including LURD — Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy — were accused of atrocities, including murder, mutilation, rape and using child soldiers.
"Eclipsed" takes place in a bullet-ridden hut on a LURD rebel base headed by a commanding officer, the unseen leader called "CO." He has captured two "wives" — Saycon Sengbloh plays Wife No. 1, clinging to the status it offers, and Pascale Armand plays pregnant Wife No. 3 as a girlish woman insecure of her looks. Wife No. 2 (Zainab Jah) has left to join the soldiers.
Although there are no men in "Eclipsed," their presence is everywhere — from the military fatigues the women wash and dry to their stomach-churning stories of rape and the moments when the "wives" stand cowering until one is chosen for sex and goes to her fate offstage. The future of women is shown blocked in this play — hence the title. It is clear who is doing the blocking.
Time and identity is fuzzy here. Trauma means few of the women know their name or where they come from. The Girl is a newcomer when we meet her and wants to reclaim their identities. "I just tink we should know who we are, whot year we got, where we come from," she says.
It is a play that explores the battle for The Girl's soul — and, in a sense, of the country itself. The choices are stasis and subjugation in the kitchen, joining the savage male world as a soldier, or embracing the lofty hope of peace, as embodied by a visiting activist, played by Akosua Busia, whose role is not as complex as the others and so sounds somewhat dissonant.
"You happy with Liberia as it going? You tink dis a nice place?" she asks. "You tink it normal a boy carrying a gun killing and raping?"
Gurira, who plays the katana-wielding walker assassin Michonne on AMC's "The Walking Dead," draws very human portraits of these women, and the audience will be stunned to find itself laughing as they joke in such hell.
In one running theme, a biography of Bill Clinton makes its way to the wives, who haltingly read it aloud as if it were a romantic thriller. (They quickly identify Monica Lewinsky as "Wife No. 2.") The political squabbles over Clinton's affair seem somehow ridiculous when compared to the depravity visiting these women.
Nyong'o goes from childish to fiendish as she tries to find out what she is in this world. Jah is truly frightening as a gun-toting soldier in knock-off Chanel tops who proclaims her freedom from a life of rape. But she is part of the merciless machine of war — and weirdly hypersexualized, to boot.
Armand is a revelation as the gossipy, vain wife who aspires to look like Janet Jackson and is highly attuned to her position. And there is a resignation to Sengbloh's portrayal of Wife No. 1 that is heartbreaking until her newfound sense of identity at the end reveals the hopeful woman inside the broken exterior.
The play ends on a somewhat hopeful note, one that is beautifully realized. Gurira's work has been unfairly eclipsed by Lynn Nottage's "Ruined," which shares some themes and came out at the same time, but this production proves it is an extraordinary work that shines and shines.