NEW YORK (AP) — Women have always been treated as part of the spoils of war. How some women might endure captivity and regular rape in squalid, harrowing conditions is explored with compassion by Danai Gurira in her complex drama "Eclipsed," currently performing off-Broadway at the Public Theater.
Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o ("12 Years A Slave"), making her New York theater debut, sensitively portrays a teenager who finds herself enslaved in a rebel compound during a bloody civil war in 2003 Liberia.
The difficult choices facing her character, known only as Girl, are nicely captured in Nyong'o's nuanced performance, as she interacts with her fellow captives and reacts to her clearly horrifying sexual experiences with the unseen male oppressor.
The women have formed a makeshift family in their cement hut, euphemistically referring to themselves as "wives" of their warlord captor, known only as "the C.O." or commanding officer. They rank themselves in the order they were captured, with Saycon Sengbloh giving longtime Number One a wise, maternal personality. Pascale Armand is comically naive as pregnant Number Three, and both of them try unsuccessfully to protect young Girl when she first arrives.
Director Liesl Tommy skillfully paces Gurira's work for maximum effect. Normal modern-day moments, such as Girl reading aloud a biography of Bill Clinton while the other women make spirited comments, contrast jarringly with the women's sudden, silent submission when summoned by the C.O. for his sexual pleasure.
Zainab Jah makes a fierce, memorable appearance as Number Two, who has escaped the life of slavery by becoming a rebel warrior. She now behaves as cold-bloodedly toward captive women as the men, and Jah projects a cunning, near-feral cruelty as her character attempts to recruit Girl to join the fighting.
Incongruously, privileged female activists known as Peace Mothers can freely come and go while negotiating with rebel leaders like the C.O. Akosua Busia effectively portrays the Peace Mother who visits the hut and gently encourages the women to remember who they were before captivity.
But merely recalling her former life may not be enough to help the person Girl has become by the end of the play. Nyong'o's haunted face will linger in memory, as she's had no good choices, forced to either submit or to submerge her own humanity. The audience is left to sympathize with her desperate plight and perhaps wonder, "What would I choose?"