Eclipsed, Danai Gurira’s heartbreaking play about women conscripted into sex slavery during the Liberian civil war at the beginning of the 21st century, isn’t like anything else on Broadway at the moment. It may have star power — with Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o in a pivotal part and Gurira, who's also known to many for her role on The Walking Dead — but it is relentless in its depiction of the brutality of war and how women are treated. This is not a light evening of entertainment.
This year’s theater season could be seen as a direct rebuke of Hollywood’s #OscarsSoWhite fiasco, with Hamilton featuring a multi-ethnic cast, and a handful of other shows with color-blind casting choices. But Eclipsed is also making history as the first all-female, but all-black production in Broadway history.
In fact, the West 45th Street section of Broadway’s theater district is the home of many shows featuring African-American actors. “We call it the Chocolate Block,” says Pascale Armand, one of Eclipsed’s stars, explaining that she has to wait until her show closes before she can plan to check out the revival of The Color Purple, nearby.
She shared with Rolling Stone what it’s like to be a humorous counterpoint in an unflinching drama about war and why she hopes Hillary Clinton (or Beyoncé) come to see the show.
Obviously the play contains really tough material, but your character Bessie, a.k.a. Wife Number Three, also gets some of the biggest laughs, so how do you deal with that intensity but also the humor?
Well, I guess the thing for me is to just always play the reality of the situation. My intent or objective is never to play for laughs; it's about the reality of the circumstances that she finds herself in. There's this crazy Stockholm Syndrome that is completely embedded in these women's lives. Bessie's pregnant; she's hungry; she's bored. So when the food comes, she's going to eat like it's her last meal. When the radio comes? What, oh my God! She's going to get down.
When the structure that she's living in is threatened by this new woman who comes into the compound [Nyong’o’s character], she's got to find a way to make herself look pretty. If all Bessie's had is the wigs, and this new woman comes in, and when they line up, she doesn't get chosen, it's harrowing for her. Her only purpose is to be a sex slave. If she's not the one being chosen, it's scary. Plus, she's already pregnant, and she's getting bigger.
I'm happy that there is some levity in the show because I understand that if there wasn't any humor, it would be a hard pill to swallow. And I'm happy to fill that function — but it's not in any way like I'm playing for the ba-dum-bump-ching! It's all very real and specific to what she's going through.
Some of the humor comes from the reading of the Bill Clinton biography that the find. Obviously the Clinton narrative has changed over the years, but the fact that we now have Hillary Clinton running for president, does that make that part feel any different
Oh, at first I thought you meant: Are they calling Hillary Wife Number One now? I'm like, Number One for president! But yes, we definitely have some distance from it now. I do remember when we did it in 2008, when we were closer to it all, I thought, "Ooooh! At least it's a regional show, no one is going to come to New Jersey or Connecticut to see this." Now I'm like, "I wonder if Obama is coming. I wonder if the Clintons are coming or the Bushes are coming." I'm curious who may show up in the audience. But if they do, I don't want to know.
Shoot, Bill DeBlasio, the mayor of New York, came with his wife, and I was like, "OK, political dignitaries are coming." I would hope they would find the humor in it and it is the past. You know, time is the best remedy for these types of things in our lives. I would hope that they would see that. But you are living your personal life onstage and I undertand. As a woman, it's dead and buried, so if I were Hillary, I would just want to leave it alone, too. Hopefully, after all of these years, she can. But she still has her man!
You guys are also making history on Broadway, so how does that feel? Does it matter?
Yes, of course it matters. I am happy and proud about the fact that it's happening. That we are the first all-female production, and African production. I'm the only one who is part of the African diaspora and not Africa proper, but still it is wonderful. It's also disappointing that an all-female production still hasn't happened before. Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls... was female, but it was still directed by a man — and it was also 30 years ago! But I am happy that it's here and we're making history in the 21st century.
It's also impossible not to look forward to this year's Tony Awards and the amount of diversity there will be at the event.
Oh yes, no Tonys So White! Not this time around. It's great. I'm beyond elated at being part of such a diverse season on Broadway. To also know so many of my friends who are working at this time, friends of mine who, we sat around, right about this time in years past, and I'm like, "I'm so on unemployment and can't play this or that. When is it going to happen?" And now we're here. I'll see the same people I was bitching and moaning too before and we're like, "Doesn't it feel great?" But also just doing great work on Broadway. It's so great to be part of the inclusion.
I understand that this is not the type of show people would expect to see on Broadway. It's musical town, and you are going to see something that is going to have you walking out singing and humming as you skip down the block. And for that reason, we're the round peg in the square hole, but that doesn't mean that we don't belong here. This show is doing so much more on Broadway and having audiences come to witness real stories that are happening in Africa and broadening their horizons and end up caring.
I don't want to give away too much about the ending — although the play has been out for years — we are left not knowing what the future holds for your character Bessie. What do you think is in store for her?
Last night Anjelique Kidjo was there and she was livid with me. She's a live wire herself and after the show, I was like, "Miss Kidjo, I want to take a picture with you!" And she said, "Uh, you! And you stayed with the CO and had a baby?" And she left. I was like, "I didn't write it."
What do I think happens to Bessie? It's a hard life for her. She starts out not wanting the pregnancy and then ends up loving the baby. The circumstances by which she got pregnant are harrowing in themselves To know, throughout all that, a woman can have this type of love is astounding. We've done a lot of research about the play and what happened to women after the war. There was disarmament and even women who were not part of the war, who had never had weapons before, would try to find spare guns because when you turned one in, since you got $300 for it. So women who had nothing to do with the war, they were finding guns or doing whatever they had to do acquire a gun, so they could live. I believe Bessie probably tried to do that. Her candle doesn't burn too bright, so she had to do what she had to do. But to get a gun with a baby on her back? It's hard. But she's going to provide for her child, so I don't think she'd just get one gun, she'd try to turn in as many as she could. Or she would try to follow CO around. I'm Pascale, and the woman I am, in dire circumstances, I'm hoping that Bessie would try to find a gun and get some money and feed her child and take care of herself. The script would lead you to believe that she would follow the only man she has been with her entire life. And he would leave her in the dust. But I don't think Bessie knows that, I do.
People may say, "I don't want to go experience such a downer," but you guys are bringing in audiences through the 10,000 Girls campaign. to bring underserved women to Broadway. Have you heard from any of the people who have seen the show?
We've had one large group of young women who have seen the show and they've come on stage after. It was wonderful to see them and discuss. It's very seldom that I get to see a reflection of myself onstage. I'm always happy to see that: August Wilson plays, I'm there. Shows that are about the black experience it's wonderful. For me, I'm thrilled that I am actually able to do for other black women what I have not had the opportunity to experience very much in my theatergoing experience. I hear the laughter and the sniffles and the sighs. I know that we're affecting them. In my peripheral vision I can see someone wiping a tear, it's wonderful to know that it's not just about entertainment. Hopefully we're changing people's lives. We're bringing something that happened over there, here.
That's great. Well, Beyoncé attended Hamilton, how are we going to get her to come see your show?
Oh my god. I don't know! But they should all come: Beyoncé, Shonda Rhimes, Viola Davis, Kerry Washington.Yes! All of my ladies. They all need to come see this show.