Somehow, in the tiny crack between her Oscar-winning breakthrough in “12 Years a Slave” and her upcoming elevation into pop iconography in the new “Star Wars” movie, Lupita Nyong’o has squeezed in her New York stage debut.
It says much about the gifted Kenya-raised beauty and fashion favorite that she did not choose some high-gloss Broadway vehicle or a romp through greatest-hits material for her first stage work since the Oscar catapulted her onto not one but two Vogue covers. Instead, she personally picked “Eclipsed,” an intense ensemble piece about captive women who serviced war lords during the second Liberian civil war.
Nyong’o is as compelling in person as on screen, first as the newest wife of the unseen man the women in the shack call the CO, a tyrant for whom they stand at attention while he gestures to his recreational choice of the moment. Called in the program The Girl, Nyong’o’s character is anything but generic — a literate, thoughtful, self-possessed child-woman who, faced with ongoing powerlessness, discovers she also has a monstrous killing machine inside.
Playwright Danai Gurira, director Liesl Tommy and most of the five-woman cast have roots in parts of Africa. The production leaves no doubt that this is a labor of love.
Gurira — who, incidentally, plays Michonne in “The Walking Dead” — wants us to understand the awful choices available to these women. We meet the ones oppressed as sex slaves (Nyong’o, Pascale Armand, Saycon Sengbloh) and one of the women (Zainab Jah) who joins the rebels to get power but ends up worse than a mercenary. The heroes are the women peacemakers (exemplified by Akosua Busia) who actually did end the war in 2003. Influences from the outside world (including a book about Bill Clinton) are comically misinterpreted. And there is a heartfelt but heavy-handed message about how important it is for dislocated women to remember the names their families gave them.
The action is set mostly in a dingy, bullet-riddled hovel filled with castoff clothes and other loot from the raids. Alas, much of the high-energy acting feels cartoony. For all the passion and the radiance of Nyong’o, it is hard not to compare this to “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage’s multi-textured 2009 Pulitzer winner about the plight of women in the Congo civil war.
Lupita Amondi Nyong’o, born March 1, 1983 is a Kenyan actress and film director. She was born in Mexico, but was raised in Kenya. She attended college in the United States, earning a Bachelor’s degree in film and theater studies from Hampshire College. She started in the film industry as a production assistant on several Hollywood films. In 2008, she made her acting debut with the short film East River and subsequently returned to Kenya to star in the television series Shuga (2009). In 2009, she wrote, produced and directed the documentary In My Genes.
Nyong’o later completed a master’s degree in acting in 2012, from the Yale School of Drama. She had her first feature film role as Patsey in Steve McQueen’s historical drama 12 Years a Slave (2013), winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and received a standing ovation at the ceremony for her performance. Nyong’o is the first Kenyan actress to win an Academy Award. In 2014, she was named “The Most Beautiful Woman” by People and “Woman of the Year” by Glamour.