Review Roundup: ECLIPSED, Starring Lupita Nyong'o, Opens at The Public

By: Oct. 14, 2015
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The Public Theater presents the American play Eclipsed, written by Danai Gurira. Directed by Obie Award winner Liesl Tommy and featuring Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong'o in her New York stage debut, this powerful story of survival and resilience opens at The Public Theater tonight, October 14, and runs through Sunday, November 29.

The complete cast of Eclipsed features Pascale Armand (Bessie), Akosua Busia(Rita), Zainab Jah (Maima), Lupita Nyong'o (Girl), and Saycon Sengbloh (Helena).

Amid the chaos of the Liberian Civil War, the captive wives of a rebel officer band together to form a fragile community -- until the balance of their lives is upset by the arrival of a new girl. Drawing on reserves of wit and compassion, Eclipsed reveals distinct women who must discover their own means of survival in this deeply felt portrait of women finding and testing their own strength in a hostile world of horrors not of their own making.

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Charles Isherwood, The New York Times: ...Ms. Gurira's play is not a star vehicle but an ensemble piece, with terrific roles for five women...I hope Ms. Nyong'o's starlight draws audiences to this detailed and painfully moving exploration of the brutality and dehumanization that seem to be endemic to African conflicts...Dark though its subject matter is, "Eclipsed" has moments of warmth and even humor, as the women try to buoy one another's spirits and maintain some modicum of civilization...In the early scenes [Nyong'o's] very much a girl, who speaks with bright eyes and the innocence of youth of someday achieving a career. But gradually she is transformed by her experience out in the field...The superlative performances from all five actors, under Ms. Tommy's sensitive direction, draw us so deeply into the lives of the women that this darkness nevertheless flickers with glimmers of light, humanity and even hope.

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: Playwright Danai Gurira...delivers politics with a passion in "Eclipsed," a searing drama about the decisive roles women played in the second Liberian civil war...Superbly directed by Liesl Tommy and powerfully acted by a strong ensemble...the play gives voice to women ranging from the wives of warlords to activists in Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, the political action group that brought an end to the war...The Girl [Lupita Nyong'o] may be young and unsophisticated, but she's no dummy, and in Nyong'o's intelligent performance, she's a boldly independent thinker...Although it's sadly ironic that she herself has no given or family name, she instinctively understands that clinging to one's own identity keeps a woman from becoming a slave. The playwright's argument is that women may be politically powerless, but they have other assets -- like moral strength, dignity, and compassion...

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: ...Liesl Tommy's fine production is not simply a case in which attention must be paid due to worthy subject matter and a proudly hoisted diversity flag. It also signals a playwright of uncommon ambition. Some second-act structural weaknesses notwithstanding, Eclipsed pulls us into and holds us captive in a vivid world whose stark horrors are rendered with unflinching honesty and delicate poignancy...What makes Eclipsed compelling, however, is the compassion and insight with which Gurira, Tommy and their remarkable cast sketch these women as complex, resilient individuals, each with her own hopes and strengths...Tommy directs the play with a measured feel for its emotional peaks and an ear attuned to the musical rhythms of its language...Nyong'o is fully convincing as an openhearted 15-year-old, and then later chilling as she drills herself in the tenets of Maima's recruitment, seemingly expunging all traces of empathy.

Adam Feldman, Time Out NY: Humanitarian crises like the recent Liberian Civil War involve erasure on a scale that's hard to imagine, much less depict onstage. The four woman at the core of Danai Gurira's urgently powerful Eclipsed no longer even have their own names...Directed by Liesl Tommy, all four of the actors portraying these women are superb; Nyong'o is as radiant as one would expect from this rising star, but the others shine as brightly. Gurira renders their plight in sometimes harrowing detail, but her focus is on the personal: their secrets and rivalries, their fears and guilt. (Mercifully, the play is often funny; one running joke has the women reading a biography of Bill Clinton.)...Applause seems an insufficient response to Gurira's bracing tale of war and endurance. It inspires you to extend a hand.

Elysa Gardner, USA Today: Nyong'o...may be the main attraction for celeb watchers...But Eclipsed is by no means a star vehicle: The five characters in this play, all female, compel our attention equally, as do the vibrant, nuanced performances delivered under Liesl Tommy's muscular but tender direction. The Girl evolves the most, allowing Nyong'o to show more range than she did in her Oscar-winning turn. When we meet her, shortly after she has been kidnapped, she seems as artless as she is frightened...We soon learn, however, that The Girl can read...and lets Nyong'o reveal glimmers of passion and cunning in her character. But The Girl is still malleable, and desperate...As The Girl, under Maima's sway, is persuaded to become a fighter herself; Nyong'o shows us to devastating effect how she is transformed (at least nearly) through terror and denial.

Robert Kahn, NBC New York: The women in Danai Gurira's "Eclipsed" have so systematically been stripped of identity that even they have trouble remembering the birth names they were given by mothers and fathers -- parents now lost to the violent years of the Liberian Civil War..."Eclipsed," though, isn't a story about women being victimized by the brutal men who surround and imprison them. Rather, it's an examination of how these women form a fragile community and, in different ways, find the resilience to move forward in fast-changing circumstances...Nyong'o displays ferocity and determination, just as we've seen on screen...Gurira only uses these large-scale events as a backdrop. She's written a much more personal examination of the choices a small few had to make as the walls came tumbling down. It's a must-see.

Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: ...Nyong'o's performance is unassuming and sensitive, and steers clear of the obnoxious false modesty of Hollywood stars "uglifying" themselves for art. She's the real deal, honest and down-to-earth...Playwright Danai Gurira is best known for her role in "The Walking Dead" as the sword-wielding Michonne, a woman of few words. Yet her own show is overly talky, with some of the scenes overstaying their welcome, and deploys a last-minute plot twist out of a soap opera. But when the show works, it quietly, powerfully describes how women survive during wartime.

Jesse Green, Vulture: This is not just a political play but a feminist play, in theme and execution. Though the wives live in fear of an always imminent and male-identified evil, no men are depicted...What we experience through much of the play is therefore the kind of activity that attests to the freakish ability of humans to keep on being human -- silly, loving, petty -- in the most inhuman situations...But the collision of sorority comedy (the women fight over the hair extensions) and war drama (every time one of them leaves the hut you fear for her) eventually tears the play in two...The second act has terrifying and heartbreaking moments, as the Girl makes her choice and tries to carry it out, but it also starts to lose its grip on character reality and move into the realm of parable.

Robert Hofler, TheWrap: [Nyong'o] makes her New York stage debut in "The Walking Dead" star Danai Gurira's play "Eclipsed"...and proves herself a magnificent, fully formed stage actress...What's equally impressive about her powerhouse portrayal in "Eclipsed" is how Nyong'o handles moments of extended silence and joy...These moments of understatement deliver, in part, because Sengbloh and Pascale Armand, playing wife Number Three, give the passionate verbal response that we expect from Nyong'o's character. We never see their "husband," the commander, and don't need to. Gurira writes these women's descriptions of abuse and entrapment in harrowing detail...While the symmetry of the narrative is sometimes forced, the voice Gurira gives to her women's pain never is.

Brendan Lemon, Financial Times: The first act of Danai Gurira's Eclipsed at the Public Theater is as engaging as any high-profile theatrical production in New York. With a cracking five-woman ensemble featuring Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o in her New York stage debut, as well as precise direction by Liesl Tommy, the drama unfolds in 2003 against the backdrop of civil strife in Liberia...Aided by the actors' superb emotional byplay, Gurira adeptly explores the intimate structure of a group of women oppressed by the larger hierarchy of war...Gurira...writes roles that are, in their emotional richness, anything but zombie-like. The luminous Nyong'o creates a stirring portrait of a teenager awakening to her potential, while Pascale Armand as Bessie and Zainab Jah as Maima excel as women on more righteous paths to power.

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Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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