The best plays feature compelling characters and life-altering confrontations, and that’s certainly true of Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed.
This Broadway-bound drama exceeds expectations by introducing five unforgettable women whose lives intersect at a rebel army camp during the Liberian Civil War in 2003. Their struggle to hang on to their dignity and humanity is both moving and surprisingly funny, thanks to the expert direction of Liesl Tommy, who has collaborated with Gurira since the play’s world premiere in 2009. Their six-year journey with Eclipsed took an exciting turn when Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o chose the play for her return to the stage. The result: a sold-out Off-Broadway run at the Public Theater and now a Main Stem debut for the playwright, director, and actress at the Golden Theatre, where a limited engagement begins February 23. In separate interviews, the Zimbabwean-American Gurira, best known for playing warrior Michonne in the hit TV series The Walking Dead, and the South African–born Tommy shared their joy over bringing Eclipsed to Broadway.
Eclipsed represents a first on Broadway: The cast, director, and playwright are all female. How does it feel to be headed to the Golden Theatre?
Danai Gurira: Deeply surreal, to be honest! It’s an amazing opportunity that I don’t take for granted.
Liesl Tommy: To say that it’s a dream come true doesn’t even begin to express how miraculous this feels, because it’s a project we’ve poured our hearts and souls into for years. The fact that this will be my Broadway debut is a testament to our strong belief in the play.
Danai, what was the impetus for telling this story? And Liesl, what was your reaction when you first read it?
Gurira: I had seen a photograph of a woman in the rebel army in Liberia holding an AK-47 and found it fascinating. Then I started doing research and learned about the work of the “peace women” in Africa. My goal has always been to tell African female stories on stage, and this was something I hadn’t seen — the story of what happens to women in wartime.
Tommy: From the moment I read it, I knew that Danai was a confident writer with a big imagination. She was able to find the nuances in the hearts and minds of these characters and weave a beautifully moving tale.
It’s rare to see historical events such as the Liberian Civil War portrayed through the personal experience of ordinary people. There’s nothing preachy about this play.
Tommy: I direct a lot of epic dramas, so that’s something I’m aware of: You never want a play to feel didactic. Danai was so committed to these women, I never felt that the political world they’re in prevents you from being gripped by their stories — which, frankly, could be happening anywhere in the world right now. They’re survivors, and I find them incredibly inspiring.
Gurira: You can’t enjoy something if you’re being banged over the head with a history lesson. That’s not only unfair to the audience, it’s unfair to the people whose story is being told. You should enjoy being in the presence of these dynamic women even if there is pain involved. No one is going to come to my plays and feel they’re being preached to about Africa.
Lupita Nyong’o, who plays a 15-year-old arrival at the camp, understudied her role at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2009. What has it been like for the three of you to revisit the play six years later?
Gurira: It’s been an amazing journey. The fact that Lupita has been in love with the play all these years and returned to it after the many beautiful things that have happened [in her career] is really poetic. Several other cast members were also there in 2009, so there’s a profound friendship and connection. Lupita is willing to be part of an ensemble because she is a storyteller.
Tommy: During rehearsal, I was so deeply moved at the level of commitment of the ensemble to give no-holds-barred performances. Lupita is a serious actress, and all of her choices are about growing as an artist. When you have a cast with that kind of trust and passion, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish.
Danai, do you feel like you’re living a double life as the star of a huge hit TV show and as a playwright?
Gurira: Yes and no. I feel very supported by the family of artists involved in The Walking Dead. A lot of them came to see Eclipsed after the [season 6] premiere at Madison Square Garden; they care about my work as a playwright and try to facilitate it. The crazy thing is that my new play [Familiar] will be running Off-Broadway at the same time Eclipsed is on Broadway. I need a cloning machine, but I’m thankful for the problem.
Tommy: Danai is a zombie killer by day, playwright by night! One day she was hiding in a closet on set, waiting to film a scene, and giving notes on a play between takes. You know how they say women can multitask more than men? That proves it!
What do you wish ordinary people understood about Africa?
Tommy: The simple answer is that I wish people knew that Africa is not a country — it’s a continent with many diverse languages, cultures, and histories.
Gurira: Just the fact that there’s no basic difference between people, regardless of geography or disparities in power and circumstances. I am American and African, and both places have common ground. At the end of the day, our humanity is linked.
Finally, why is theater important to you?
Gurira: How could it not be? It’s where I’m from, so that’s like asking why I keep going home again. There’s nothing like sitting in a dark house and suspending disbelief to watch a story come to life in real time. It’s an amazing, living art form, and a deeply important one.
Tommy: I love the energetic exchange and the communal feeling, those moments when you can feel the entire audience laughing or holding their breath. That’s the reason we do what we do. And in Eclipsed, that connection is there at every performance. The audience is not just watching a play, they’re seeing these women’s lives unfold.
Photo by Joan Marcus.