The Inspiration Behind Bringing Unheard African Voices to the Stage in Eclipsed

Special Features   The Inspiration Behind Bringing Unheard African Voices to the Stage in Eclipsed
 
Danai Gurira, Liesl Tommy and Lupita Nyong’o tap into their African roots to bring Eclipsed to Broadway. They talk the show’s origin.
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The cast of Eclipsed Joseph Marzullo/WENN

When asked how it feels to have Eclipsed, her Broadway playwriting debut, turn out to be the toast of Broadway’s spring season, Danai Gurira chuckles heartily. “Well, I’ve never heard it put that way before.”

“I’m just thankful that the story is out there, and it’s on a different platform, and that it’s being seen by so many, and hopefully more awareness is brought to the stories and the issues of the girls and women that we try to bring forth,” the veteran actress says about the Liesl Tommy-directed production starring Pascale Armand, Akosua Busia, Zainab Jah, Saycon Sengbloh and Lupita Nyong’o.

Based on the real life stories of the women and girls who helped bring peace to the African nation of Liberia during its second civil war, Eclipsed doesn’t only capture a piece of untold history, it’s also making it.

With notable African-American business women like Alia Jones-Harvey, La La Anthony and Marvet Britto among the producer credits, Eclipsed marks the first time that a Broadway play was written by, directed by and starring women of African descent.

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It also tells a tale rarely seen in a big commercial setting like Broadway. Gurira’s theatrical credits as an actress include the 2009 revival of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and her double duty as co-writer and star of Primary Stages’ staging of In the Continuum in 2005. Currently seen on The Walking Dead, AMC’s wildly popular ensemble drama, Gurira, who was born in Iowa and raised in Zimbabwe, says the success of Broadway—following a sold-out production at the Public Theater last fall—is something she never imagined.

“This is something that I’m blessed to receive,” she shares. “All of what I’m trying to do is make sure, with whatever abilities that I have, [that] I push myself to my absolute limits to make sure I get two things done: One, I get African women’s stories told, and Two, I get women of African descent employed.”

The harrowing (and sometimes humorous) Eclipsed is set in a rural compound and revolves around the lives of four “wives” of a brutal warlord—and the female peace worker on a mission to free them from emotional and physical captivity.

“It’s very fulfilling to feel just the potency of what we’re doing and to be a part of something significant and memorable,” says Nyong’o, an Oscar winner for 12 Years A Slave, who originally understudied the role she’s currently playing while studying at the Yale School of Drama.

“It was a very riveting tale about these women who are caught in this war. It tells their distinct stories, and you get to know each woman on their own terms,” she adds. “I just loved how honest it was, how intense, how heartbreaking. … I love that emotional journey it took us on.”

The idea to tell the unheard stories of the faceless and nameless women of the war first came to Gurira after she read a New York Times article about female rebels.

“I’ve had an interest in African female voices on the whole, but I did come across an article on the cover about the rebel fighters,” she says. “And it was about the women like you see in the play, who were decked out in cool jeans and fancy tops and had great hairdos and AK-47s.

Akosua Busia and Lupita Nyong’o in <i>Eclipsed</i>
Akosua Busia and Lupita Nyong’o in Eclipsed Photo by Joan Marcus

“And I grew up in a very different part of Africa that was not in war, and I had never seen that image in my life. And I said I’ve [got to] pursue that story.”

Gurira, whose play Familiar also played this season at Playwrights Horizons, started the long journey of bringing Eclipsed to the page in 2003, when the idea first came to mind. She even visited Liberia to interview the women who the characters are based upon.

“That world broke open to me in ways where I had to relate to very uncomfortable components of their experiences and allow their full complexities and flaws, powers, joys and pains to all be revealed,” Gurira says. “And to me, that’s how you truly celebrate unheard voices.”

Born and raised in South Africa, director Tommy, a former actress, has had a close relationship with the play.

“When Danai sent me the script years ago … I had been longing to work on something that dealt with African themes and politics, and it was an all female cast, [which] absolutely attracted me to it,” says Tommy. “I knew this was a writer that I wanted to work with and this [was] a story that I wanted to tell.”

Tommy, a protégé of the Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, has helmed productions of Eclipsed at the McCarter Theatre, Woolly Mammoth Theatre and Yale Repertory Theatre.

“Just the response from the previews and the opening night has been so incredible you can really feel the audience’s hunger for more complex stories, more representative stories. … I’m just so thrilled that we are there to give it to them,” says Tommy.

“I fiercely believe in this show … I hope that people love it as much as I do,” Nyong’o adds. “It feels good that the story is resonating with people and we’re reaching the world with the story that Danai wrote.”

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