When you’ve won an Academy Award for your first feature film, created a role in the reboot of Star Wars, and graced the cover of Vogue (twice), the most unexpected career move would almost certainly be an Off-Broadway play about the Liberian Civil War. The fact that Lupita Nyong’o is on track to make her Broadway debut in Danai Gurira’s acclaimed drama Eclipsed is in some ways a happy accident. All she wanted to do was get back on stage in a role she understudied at Yale School of Drama in 2009.
“I had sat down with myself after the whirlwind year I’d had and thought about what I really wanted to do, and it was just Eclipsed,” Nyong’o told The New York Times, referring to the instant stardom that came with her performance in 12 Years a Slave. Offered her pick of scripts by Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, Nyong’o replied, “Nope, I want to do Eclipsed.” After winning raves from critics, the production quickly sold out its entire run, and a limited engagement at Broadway’s Golden Theatre will begin February 23.
Set in a Liberian rebel army camp in 2003, Eclipsed centers on the “wives” (actually sex slaves) of a brutal commanding officer, including a 15-year-old first seen emerging from her hiding place under a metal tub. This unnamed teen is played by Nyong’o in a tattered T-shirt and messy topknot that render the glamorous young star unrecognizable. Over the course of the play, “The Girl” must decide whether to pursue an alternate path as a gun-toting rebel soldier. “It’s about how women end up creating freedom within themselves,” the actress explained in her most recent Vogue cover story. “My character is wife No. 4. It’s about her grappling with the loss of her life.”
Nyong’o is thrilled be part of what Zimbabwean American playwright Gurira calls an “Africanist” all-female ensemble, including actresses with roots in Kenya (Nyong’o), Liberia (Saycon Sengbloh), Ghana (Akosua Busia), and Sierra Leone (Zainab Jah), and a director born in South Africa (Liesl Tommy). “I grew up in a country and in a world that consumed a lot of Western popular culture, and so I was starved for stories about people like me,” Nyong’o told the Times. “This seemed like a prime opportunity to do a story about Africans that also really allowed me to stretch myself, to experience totally different circumstances from the ones I grew up in.”
The daughter of a Kenyan professor turned politician, Nyong’o was born in Mexico City but returned to her home country as a baby. “My dream was to be an actor from when I was very little,” she said in a speech at the Massachusetts Conference for Women, a goal “made a little more difficult because I grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, in the ’80s when acting was just not a viable career path . . . especially for a politician’s daughter.” Inspired by the performances of Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple, Nyong’o kept her dream alive while majoring in film studies in America at Hampshire College. And yet, she said, “at age 25, I was still feeling lost and unfocused. . . . What I really wanted, more than anything, was to make believe for a living.”
Everything changed when Nyong’o successfully auditioned for a spot at Yale School of Drama, where she met Gurira and Tommy, and won the role of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave just before graduation. Her recent success comes as no surprise to the Eclipsed director. “Lupita is both extremely talented and luminously beautiful,” Tommy says. “That may sound hyperbolic, but when you see her on stage, you cannot take your eyes off her.”
A naturally charismatic theater actress, Nyong’o prefers to think of herself as a member of the Eclipsed ensemble. “I did a lot of expressing of myself during the campaign for 12 Years,” she recalled of the red carpets and award shows leading up to the 2014 Oscar ceremony, “and I needed to get back to who I was as a performer, as an actor, as a beginner. . . . I love the communal experience of theater, of getting to really go deep and to play with other people and create together.”
During her break between the Off-Broadway and Broadway runs of Eclipsed, Nyong’o will again face paparazzi cameras in support of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in which she voices the alien space pirate Maz Kanata. Also on tap are a live-action remake of The Jungle Book, as the wolf mother Raksha, and a still-in-development film adaptation of the award-winning novel Americanah. “I like playing characters that stretch me and that allow me to investigate humanity in a different way,” she told Vogue.
Taking the stage on Broadway is the next step in Nyong’o’s continuing quest to challenge herself. “With success comes an added expectation,” she noted in her speech at the Massachusetts women’s conference, “and with that comes lofty responsibility.” Comparing her insecurities to dragons and acknowledging past fears of “not being able to handle all these new expectations,” she concluded: “I must ultimately trust that my life has equipped me with all the tools and weapons I need.” The women of Eclipsed couldn’t have said it better.
Photo by Joan Marcus.