Lupita Nyong’o, the Mexican-Kenyan actress who won an Academy Award for “12 Years a Slave” right after graduating from Yale School of Drama, now makes a luminous New York stage debut at the Public Theater in “Eclipsed,” an intense drama by Zimbabwean-American actress-playwright Danai Gurira (Michonne on “The Walking Dead”) about Libyan women in 2003 during the country’s civil war.
Set in a ramshackle rebel army camp, Helena (Saycon Sengbloh) and Bessie (Pascale Armand), who describe themselves as “wives” to the commanding officer, are first seen hiding a 15-year-old girl (Nyong’o) under a tub. But once “The Girl” is discovered, she becomes wife number 4.
The women are later confronted by Maima (Zainab Jah), a former wife who has since become a gun-toting soldier, and Rita (Akosua Busia), one of the many women in the country who are advocating for a peaceful resolution to the warfare. Eventually, Maima tempts “The Girl” into becoming a soldier herself.
“Eclipsed” will no doubt be compared with Lynn Nottage’s 2009 Pulitzer-winning drama “Ruined,” which depicted women affected by the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. If “Eclipsed” lacks the narrative strength of “Ruined,” it remains a compelling study of women in an atmosphere of overwhelming violence and sexual abuse.
The text requires the actors to speak with thick accents. Although this creates authenticity, it is often difficult to understand what they are saying.
The entire ensemble is excellent, but Nyong’o stands out with her sharp abilities, as she transforms from an innocent teen and acquiescent captive (who spends her spare time reading a biography of Bill Clinton) to a combatant.