African Women’s War Stories Are Told in Broadway Play ‘Eclipsed’

When political leaders and star entertainers are dramatized on Broadway, their lives are portrayed in rich detail. Less common: giving the same finely rendered attention to virtually anonymous women just trying to stay alive, as in Danai Gurira’s play “Eclipsed,”which opened to rave reviews last week at the Golden Theatre.

At the center is The Girl, a Liberian teen toting an AK-47 over her Tweety Bird T-shirt and fretting at the atrocities she enabled. Alongside her is a woman pregnant with a warlord’s child, scrambling for a tattered wig that makes her feel pretty.

Ms. Gurira based these characters on real women’s accounts of living through Liberia’s two civil wars, spanning from 1989 to the 2003 indictment of then-President Charles Taylor . Putting one-dimensional victims onstage was never going to work, she said.

“If I were to make them what people expect—poor African girls, sex slaves—instantly, you are able to disengage,” she said. “If you are watching fully formed human beings…trying to navigate survival, we can all connect to that.”

Ms. Gurira, who is also an actress known for her role in TV’s “The Walking Dead,” grew up in peaceful Zimbabwe and became interested in writing about Liberia after seeing a newspaper photograph of a female rebel fighter known as Black Diamond in 2003.

“I had never seen that sort of imagery—women at war in their early 20s, with cool clothes, tight jeans, slinky tops and AK-47s,” she said. “I wanted to explore that story.”

On a monthlong research trip to Liberia in 2007 she interviewed numerous women whose experiences were far from the flash of Black Diamond.

Their stories reflected the notorious abuse of women and children in Liberia at the time. According to Corinne Dufka, West Africa expert at Human Rights Watch, “There were widespread war crimes committed against women including abduction, rape and sexual slavery perpetrated by armed combatants from all factions.”

Ms. Gurira’s goal became creating an authentic and accessible narrative that conveyed the spectrum of emotion, including humor, needed for survival.

“Who are these girls we hear about in a news blurb, if at all?” she said. “Those women were hilarious, interesting and multidimensional: some feisty, some reserved, some vain.”

In “Eclipsed,” five women choose different paths. The main emotional journey is that of The Girl, an innocent orphan played by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o. She finds shelter at a rebel-army camp with a mature woman who seeks to create order in the meager household she rules as Wife #1, a captive of the commanding officer, unseen by the audience. Her surrogate child is Wife #3, flighty, proud and pregnant.

Wife #2 has rejected slavery by taking up arms as a soldier. She lures The Girl to fight, but in following #2, the teen learns the cost of her freedom and power. All are visited by Rita, an educated businesswoman in the peace movement, a character based on two female leaders Ms. Gurira met.

The urgency of the women’s situation is amplified by the visuals of the hyperrealistic production, directed by Liesl Tommy, with set and costume design by Clint Ramos.

“We had hundreds and hundreds of images all over the rehearsal room, from beautiful journalistic photographs to really brutal, hard-to-look-at things,” said Ms. Tommy, who is from South Africa.

For The Girl, who arrives in a T-shirt depicting the animated series “Rugrats,” Mr. Ramos found inspiration in images of people wearing castoff clothes from the First World.

“There are so many random American things juxtaposed against the African traditional mode of dress,” he said. “A giveaway T-shirt from a cheese factory in Wisconsin? How did it get there?”

He custom-printed several T-shirts to subtly support the emotional themes. The displaced teen wears an ill-fitting shirt advertising apartments: “Make Our Home Your Home” it reads.

As a soldier, The Girl becomes a protégé of Wife #2, who strides confidently in bedazzled jeans and a counterfeit Chanel shirt.

But The Girl’s transformation is incomplete: She feels remorse as she tells of rounding up village women to be sex slaves—and of her role in allowing a girl to be raped to death, a horror Ms. Gurira heard about in her interviews.

“The mother of that girl told me that story, of how her 10-year-old daughter died,” said Ms. Gurira. “I couldn’t eat or sleep for two days.”

While the female soldiers go off, Wives #1 and #3 remain at their cramped hovel, made of cement and tile walls, riddled with bullets. Its design, said Mr. Ramos, is based on images of soldiers posing in ruined structures and a bus so fired-upon that its metal frame is barely whole.

The positioning of their shelter shifts during the show. “That thing, like the girls, is never on firm footing,” said Mr. Ramos.

By the war’s end, the women take back their given names, also based on real people, and the pregnant woman gives birth to a baby girl.

She chooses to stay behind with the commanding officer, a decision inspired by a story Ms. Gurira heard of a young woman who remained where she was after the war and whose behavior appeared stunted: “She had her baby doll. She was about 16.”