June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016
When you live in New York City, it’s easy to slip into avoid-Times-Square mode. I often have to go there for movie screenings, on a weekend night, and I’m often late, so the slow-traipsing, wide-eyed people out and about in that part of the city can be pretty frustrating. But avoiding Times Square is just no way to live life – especially if you’re a fan of theatre, living and breathing theatre, where the best of the best come to ply their wares and bare their souls.
This Wednesday, my friend Stevie and I made a double bill out of Eclipsed and The Crucible. One, an off-Broadway Public Theatre transplant (just like another little production you may have heard of called Hamilton), the other, an oft-performed classic of both stage and screen. Eclipsed is one of two recently written by Danai Gurira, directed by Liesl Tommy and stars Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o in a story set within the Liberian Civil War. Nyong’o is one of five women in the production, which is currently showing at the John Golden Theatre.
The set is sparse, with most of the play taking place within the four corners of a shack where three of the women are being held as “wives” of war generals. The story of war from the experience of girl child soldiers is one that isn’t really heard and so that already makes this an important story. A necessary one. While the cast is more than adequate in relating the story, I can’t help but wonder why I wasn’t more moved by the production. I am a great fan of Gurira and of Nyong’o, but for some reason, I didn’t have the kind of soul-shifting experience I expected to with a story of this nature – where a girl must face the question of her own fate. Should she take up arms and hurt and kill, or be hurt and killed herself? Weighty, almighty questions.
Perhaps it’s because I learned about atrocities of this kind of war in documentaries and current affairs shows in South Africa, from a young age, and so I needed a little more from the story itself. But this is the first time a Broadway play was written and directed by women of African descent, so my qualms are small in relation to the need for as many people as possible to see this show. It still asks its audience to think a little deeper. The title of the play led me to think of how much the lead character, played by Nyong’o, the Girl in question, allows fear to ‘eclipse’ her true nature in the most harrowing of circumstances.
In following up Eclipsed with The Crucible, Stevie and I found ourselves confronting fear in a different form. Set in the late 1600’s (although this production is staged a little later), the story written by American playwright Arthur Miller in the 1950’s explores the fear of a town seemingly besieged by witchcraft. Originally set as an allegory to McCarthyism and communism, it gets deep down into the belly of the beast of fear – how it turns logic illogical, rational to irrational, comfort to chaos. This particular production, directed by Ivo van Hove, who last worked on David Bowie’s Lazarus, features an all-star cast, from Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan as Abigail Williams to Ben Whishaw and Sophie Okonedo as John and Elizabeth Procter. Tavi Gevinson, known for the blog-turned-magazine Rookie, is remarkable as Mary Warren. Whishaw, who usually plays soft-spoken characters is a tour de force here, making full use of the stage in his anguish, while Okonedo is his foil, repressing all that she feels. Ronan is solid and tempestuous, but for me, not the highlight of the production. The fear and tension created by the ensemble becomes another character in the story, and it’s an intense experience.
With both productions being heavy on subject matter and having deep relevance for our times still today – witness the impact of Boko Haram in Africa and the political games being played in the run-up to the US elections, I recommend filling the time in between with some light-fare, like sushi at City Kitchen, or perhaps a screening of Zootopia, as we did. Fear does too make an appearance in this latest animated offering from Disney, but it is combatted by a bunny who’s can-do attitude is immeasurably inspiring – a bunny who wouldn’t think twice about venturing into Times Square at any time.
Eclipsed is on at the John Gordon Theatre while The Crucible is at the Walter Kerr. And Zootopia is currently playing on a big screen near you!