On March 6, less than a week after Black History Month and six days into Women’s History Month, all manner of black history—as well as women’s history—was being made on Broadway.
Bowing at the Golden was Broadway’s first all-female opus, Eclipsed, written, directed and acted by black women (playwright Danai Guriria, director Liesl Tommy, actresses Lupita Nyong'o, Pascale Armand, Akosua Busia, Zainab Jah and Saycon Sengbloh).
Also, the arrival of Nyong’o, who won a 2014 Academy Award for “12 Years a Slave,” marked the first time Broadway has ever had three black Oscar winners on Broadway at the same time. She joins Forest Whitaker of Hughie and Jennifer Hudson of The Color Purple—all in their Broadway bows, all on the same Broadway block.
The year of her Oscar was also the year Nyong’o turned major fashion plate, emerging Glamour’s Woman of the Year and People’s Most Beautiful Woman. Both of these dueling images are wrapped around her show’s Playbill: On the front cover is the actress in character (a war-ravaged teenager in the Liberian Civil War of 2003); on the back cover is the elegant model (representing the radiant face of Lancome).
Cued probably by this prominent fashion influence, the unbroken line of key female creatives came to the after-party at Gotham gorgeously gowned in designer duds.
Busia, dressed in white in the play as a member of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace that helped end the Second Liberian Civil War, came to the party wearing her own line. “It’s called Royal Lineage,” she helpfully chirped, “and I’m featuring different Ghana designers. This is House of Tso Tso by Vanessa Harrison.”
As the lone voice of peace in the play, Busia drew her character from a real-life reference point. “I’m blessed that I know Leymah Gbowee, who got the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts in Liberia. I know her from my sister, and it’s a genuine honor to be playing a woman who is bringing peace the way that she did.”
When not writing for the stage, playwright Gurira wears another hat—and a pretty mean sword, which she swings seven months a year as Michonne in TV’s The Walking Dead.
It would not be unreasonable to suspect that when she was writing Eclipsed she was thinking of herself for one of the roles, but she said that was not the case—although she did concede that if she were to do one of the roles, it would probably be the second of the Liberian rebel leader’s four wives—the firebrand who takes to soldiering.
“This is just not the play for that for me,” Gurira admitted. “For me, it’s about giving opportunity to other women of color. One of my core mandates is to create opportunities for women of color to tell rich, complex, interesting stories—to be able to express their craft. That can only happen if I’m not the one to get up there. I have to let others get up there. That’s what I love most about being a playwright: seeing these other women get to wrap their craft around the characters I created.”
Only last week, Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, she hatched another batch of roles with Familiar, a more autobiographical work about Zimbabweans transplanted in a snowy Minneapolis suburb.
“That play is completely based on family. No matter where you’re from, no matter what color your skin is, family is family. The hope is that that connection would be felt by audiences—that they understand this family, even if it’s not their own.
“I love just to feel community around me, to feel it happening between the audience and the story on stage. I felt that kind of thing happening tonight. That’s all I want.
“Eclipsed is based on women I met in Liberia and the research I did seven years ago. Because I’m Zimbabwean and American, I definitely seek to show a specific African story very clearly. I don’t ever want to generalize because I’m working against the idea that you can generalize Africa. Africa has 52 countries and 1,500 languages, which is not dialects—languages,” Gurira continued. “What I try to do in my work is celebrate the specificity, so the idea is that I had to go to Liberia. There’s no way I was going to write a play about a people I did not know, who are not my own people. I grew up in Southern Africa, very far from Western Africa across the equator. There was no way to stick to my own artistic mantra as an African writer. I had to go in, let them teach me how to tell their stories. That’s what I try to encourage in the little realm I can affect—that we must let the African story be told subjectively and specifically.”
In 2012, Eclipsed premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre, directed by Tommy and featuring two-fifths of the current Broadway cast (Jah as Wife #2 and Armand as Wife #3).
“I’m number 2, the tough bitch,” Jah practically crowed. “When they asked me to do it again, I was surprised. I said to myself, ‘Well, you’ve stayed pretty much the same, and you’re still really a badass with a gun.’ The character Danai plays on The Walking Dead is basically my character, but she wrote my character before she got that role.
“My character is based on a real person who [experienced this] at 16. Her name was Black Diamond. If you look her up on YouTube, you’ll see her. She looks very much like me. She’s a Liberian rebel leader who got gang-raped at 11, picked up a gun at 15 and formed her own army. She’s a real person. That’s why I put so much into her.”
Nyong’o has been upgraded from understudy in that Yale production to the lead role. Actually, her Oscar clout and red-carpet rep is what helped bring Eclipsed to Broadway. “It was the first show I understudied,” Nyong’o recalled. “What I like about this character is that she’s the springboard with which we enter the world of this play. She’s the one who has yet to be exposed to this world of captivity. Through her eyes, we learn about the very specific nature of this rebel commander’s compound. She’s the one who makes the audience ask, ‘How would I survive this horrible situation?’ Each woman in this play deals with captivity in different ways.
“I remember in rehearsals watching this play come alive, making a mental note that I had to do this play one day. 12 Years a Slave provided me with that opportunity. When producers started asking me what play I would like to do, I said Eclipsed.”
Stephen Byrd is the producer who stepped up to the plate and got it done, starting with an acclaimed, sold-out, ten-week engagement at The Public before setting it down on Broadway. “It takes an emotional roller-coaster ride,” he said. “Danai does that. She has that ability, and this is an important story that needs to be told. I call it an ‘educatement.’ It’s a story of empowerment, a story of women who bond.”
Oskar Eustis, kingpin of the Public from whence cometh Hamilton, was delighted to be making another contribution to the Broadway season. “It has just been so exquisitely put together by Liesl and this company of actresses. It’s the rare show about a subject that’s not only a powerful play but you can feel how authentic the voices are that are telling the story. I’ve never seen anything like that on Broadway.
“We’ve continued to work very hard on the performances and the staging,” says Eustis. “I’m very proud of the fact that it’s better now than it was at the Public. I kinda pride myself on that. When we move shows to Broadway, we don’t water them down, we don’t make them more commercial, we make them better. And it is better than it was.”