The Public Theater presents "Eclipsed," written by Danai Gurira. Directed by Obie Award winner Liesl Tommy and featuring Lupita Nyong’o in her New York stage debut, the powerful story of survival and resilience opens at The Public Theater tonight, October 14, and runs through Sunday, November 29.
The Theater is a magical place. It’s even more magical when Lupita Nyong’o is in it. Last night, I saw a production of "Eclipsed" at The Public Theater in New York City. Not only was the play written by Danai Gurira ("The Walking Dead"). This ensemble cast included: Zainab Jah (the Black woman who played Hamlet at the Wilma Theater), Akosua Busia (Nettie from "The Color Purple," writing credit on the screenplay "Beloved"), Pascale Armand (she is a force of nature, http://www.pascalearmand.com) and Saycon Sengbloh (played Rita Marley in "Marley," was also in "Hair," "Motown" and "Fela"). In other words, this play is badass!
Imagine Halle Berry, after winning her Academy Award, choosing to be in an off-broadway play in NYC where she portrays one of the lost children of the world. A character, who has no voice, no power, very little hope. Lupita Nyong’o did this very thing. After winning an Oscar for her portrayal of Patsy in "12 Years A Slave", where she captivated us with one of the most marginal voices in the American cinematic canon, Ms. Nyong’o breathes life into an oppressed character simply known as The Girl.
Since the Oscar win, we have seen Ms. Nyong’o run the covers and pages of fashion magazines. Every month or so, the social media feeds of Black women regale us with a picture of Ms. Lupita wearing clothes that capture the eye, as a flower does at it’s peak point of blossoming. Every color, every designer, the best in styling. Beauty for days. So, when she first appears on the stage, there is an expectation to see the “cover girl”. However, immediately, we know that the cover of Vogue is far and away from where The Girl exists. The Girl is a character who wouldn’t know what Vogue is nor would she care. In this small space, on Astor Place, for a couple of hours, I was riveted to the life of The Girl and the women who surrounded her as they attempt to survive an assault on their weary bodies, minds and spirits during wartime in Liberia.
The play clearly communicates that these women are EVERYWOMAN. They are stand-ins for the oppressed girls and women that populate our globe. Specifically, they are girls/women who were captive and taken as “wives” for a commanding officer during the war in Liberia. There is a war in their country. These girls and women experience the simultaneous war that breaks out in them. Their war includes repetitive rape, attempts to maintain personal agency, bodies that walk around trying to grip a bit of sanity. Not in any way sentimental, these women live in a crowded space and lean on or fight with one another to find a small sign of liberty.
As they bicker, do hair, listen to the radio, wipe their vaginas after rape with a soiled rag in an oft used red bucket, discover Bill Clinton’s philandering ways with an intern and relate it to their story, they find pieces of liberty in items like a yellow dress, a wig, a book, a blanket or a gun.
This is a play about Black women and girls, and how we make a way out of no way. Although the brutality and presence of the commanding officer is palpable, there are no men in the play. The character of the commanding officer is invisible. Yet, he appears, as a presence, throughout, beckoning one of his “wives” to come to his room. When the woman returns, she goes to the red bucket for a quick wipe with the soiled rag. Lupita’s portrayal of The Girl is particularly poignant in these moments. When she returns from a visit to the commanding officer, her body language trumpets the sexual violation. Silently, she walks, wipes and lays on her side, a piece of her broken but functioning, barely.
Another haunting moment that recalled Lupita’s, now famous, “soap” moment from ‘12 Years a Slave’. However, she was not Patsy, she was The Girl. Although the cry was from a similar broken human being, Lupita showed no evidence of Patsy. The theater was stone cold quiet as The Girl blistered, vocally, through her wounds. Her voice, so piercing as a cry for sanity that it gave voice to everything broken in a woman’s body and cast it onto the walls of that theater. Lupita wailed the horror of the unheard and sat it in our laps.
Each of these women were solid in their performances. The ensemble cast was a collective of the wounded. However, each woman embodied a trauma that was specific to them. They fought for their space in the wreckage. Each held onto hope in a way that was deeply personal and representative of their psychology. The writing and direction was generous, in that, it gave each character the chance to share her signature, make her story known.
This is a play to see. If you can, find a way to do it. My only hope is that girls and women, who do not have the resources to attend theater, get to see it. It is a play that speaks to them.
The camaraderie of the African and African American women in this play, is awesome. Like Taraji, jumping to cheer Viola at the Emmy’s, these women are artistic comrades. Like Queen Latifah working with Dee Rees on "Bessie". "Eclipsed" heralds a Black woman Playwright, Black women cast, Black woman Director. Telling our stories and entrusting one another to do it with us, is the way forward. This is something that has been done in the theater world for years. The world of cinema has to catch up. To see Danai and Lupita collaborate on a project is fantastic!
Finally, Lupita. Allow me to digress for a bit. Periodically, on Sundays, I will turn to OWN, Oprah Winfrey’s network to see what “spiritual teacher” she has on. OWN is a quiet TV space in a TV landscape of crime and violence. The space that Oprah Winfrey has carved out on her network is admirable. However, I am not long engaged by wealthy people speaking about spirituality, life lessons, etc. I know that the people who survive the deepest horrors, are, perhaps, our greatest spiritual teachers. The girls and women who survive deep violation and trauma. Girls and women who are raped to the point of holding on by a thread. The ones who seek protection and survival by any means necessary. The Patsy’s, The Girls, these are our greatest spiritual teachers if we just do our part to bring their lives to the center. Lupita is doing her part.
"Eclipsed" is about the complex choices girls and women face under oppression. It is about how we fracture, do battle with one another and try and find our way; ultimately reflecting the power of women when we come together to rescue ourselves. It is a tribute to the girls and women who suffer personal wars and the peace women of Liberia who came to save them. Again, it is a must see.
As I walked out of the theater to get a snack for my journey home, I went to the Walgreen’s across the street from The Public Theater. I grabbed my snack and stood in line. I looked up and there was Lupita Nyong’o coruscating on the cover of Vogue. Beautiful. I had just seen her in rags and misery. Bold. I thought, this is a woman who is using her fame, presence, to mean something. I was a fan of her before, last night. Didn’t realize I could be an even bigger fan but I am. I am also a fan of every woman who brought it to that stage. Go Danai; Go Zainab; Go Pascale; Go Akosua; Go Saycon; Go Liesl! Go girls and women who survive horror. And, go Ms. Lupita with your bold and beautiful self, just go!
The play runs from Sept 29 – Nov 29, 2015. Details here: http://www.publictheater.org/en/Public-Theater-Season/Eclipsed/.