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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lupita N'yongo and Saycon Sengbloh
Photo by Joan Marcus

"What is your name?"

This question, or some variation of it, is asked frequently throughout Eclipsed, the play by Danai Gurira that just opened at The Public Theater. And that's not without good reason. Identity, as reflected through both the individual and the society in which she resides, is central to this unforgiving but highly watchable exploration of five women for whom it is literally a matter of life and death.

In most cases, their names have either been suppressed or forgotten, among the least remarked-upon victims of the political uprising all around them. This is Liberia in 2003, when a violent people's rebellion is sweeping through the country in an attempt to depose the brutal leader, Charles Taylor. The military leader in charge of one camp that's been set up in the path has taken (and that is the correct word) a number of "wives" with whom he'll do as he pleases, whenever he pleases, as often as he pleases.

His conquests vary in age, from the "Number One" wife (Saycon Sengbloh) at least in her late thirties to a young girl (Lupita Nyong'o) just barely out of her teens, with one (Pascale Armand) somewhere in between. Their days consist of little more than survival, cooking food and submitting to their husband's sexual whims whenever he points. (He is forever unseen, but quite obviously insatiable and malicious.) Once the girl is broken in, she concludes that she wants no more of this life and longs for escape.

She finds it in the person of Maima (Zainab Jah), the former "number two" wife, who escaped, became a soldier, and returns to the wives one day to visit. Her example—and the AK-47 permanently slung over her shoulder—inspires the girl to forsake her current existence in favor of one that might actually make a difference to Liberia's future. But once she finds herself on the front lines, the prospect stops being so inviting, and it becomes much less clear where her true freedom lies.

The girl's quest to discover her best purpose, and the examination of the role models around her (the last is a more mainstream activist named Rita, played by Akosua Busia, who is trying to effect change through social rather than violent means), makes for a fascinating evening. Gurira, whose previous New York work as a playwright includes the excellent 2005 AIDS drama In the Continuum and who is well known from her acting appearances on The Walking Dead, skillfully weaves together fact and fiction into an empowering look at what these women are capable of accomplishing when they're allowed and inspired to. Better yet, she does it without drawing undue attention to her methods; here, the story always takes precedence over the message.

Not that the actors ever let you lose sight of the women's humanity. It's on fullest display from Sengbloh, who's marvelous as the matron of the group. Sengbloh plays her as thoroughly mature, so much so that she's world-weary and resigned to her lot, but she's also intimately in touch with the girl inside her. When, under Rita's encouragement, she sees her name spelled out and thens write it herself in the dirt with a stick, it's as though her most private joy has been unstoppered and her truest sense of being unleashed in a way she'd long assumed impossible. Sengbloh glides through the piece's numerous complex feelings utterly naturally, as though Number One wants to convey through her emotional vitality her own rebellion against the repression she's faced.

It's beautiful work, to be sure, but Sengbloh is nonetheless one-fifth of a strong ensemble. Nyong'o, who won an Oscar for her role in the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave, makes a heartbreaking transition from an unsullied innocent to a would-be aggressor with perhaps too much control, but throughout the girl remains tethered to her own dreams and beliefs, which may not be compatible with either of the available choices. Her wrestling match with her options is gripping, but so is the subtle comedy Armand brings to her character, highlighting her latent vanity, and the startling contrast between the two stark visions of ironclad self-reliance embodied by Jah and Busia.

For all the power in this tale and the performances, however, Eclipsed stops short of delivering the debilitating gut punch it leads you to expect. Though it could scarcely be better defining the women, the script makes the threat lurking just offstage a bit too imaginary; there's just not much of a sense that this is a disintegrating war zone. Even the opening scene of Act II, when Maima schools the girl in combat and revolutionary thinking on the battlefield, is more studious than urgent. Director Liesl Tommy's pacing could also be tighter, to better depict the desperation at play, and the rolling-box camp set from Clint Ramos is a bit lumbering to effectively communicate the makeshift existence we're witnessing (though Ramos's vivid, characterful costumes and Jen Schriever's harsh lights are right on target).

But when things land, they land hard, whether in presenting the terrifying stakes of the conflict in which the women are embroiled or even in humorously surveying the uncertainty of identity that's at its core. In the play's most delightful scene, the women crowd around a current-events book and translate it into the language of their own experience.

It involves "de big man of America," Bill Clinton. "And his government. And Monica his Number Two, and how de Judiciary and Senate and Starr trying to stress him." So what if they don't understand the minute details of American politics? Their journey is even more immediately important: to take back their country, and themselves, from those who have stolen it. Their search may continue for a long time. But by the time Eclipsed is finished, don't be surprised if you find that you know them just as well as you do yourself.

Through November 29
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
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