The Unicorn Theatre has made a name for itself producing works straight from Broadway. But the theater’s production of “Eclipsed” takes it one step further: This is the first play that artistic director Cynthia Levin acquired the rights to while it was still running on Broadway.
To make things more interesting (and to expand upon the standard the Broadway version established), she wanted all of her cast and crew to be female.
“Immediately upon hearing about it, I was enthralled with the idea,” she said. “Upon reading it, immediately, that day I wrote to try to get the rights to do it.
“It was like this play was written to be done at the Unicorn Theatre.”
“Eclipsed,” which takes place during the second Liberian civil war in 2003, was written by Danai Gurira, best known as the machete-wielding Michonne from AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” Gurira was inspired to write the play after seeing a photo of a female Liberian freedom fighter. She then visited Liberia and interviewed more than 30 women affected by the war, including those who had been abducted and turned into sex slaves and those who were freedom fighters.
Their stories became “Eclipsed,” which made history as the first Broadway play with an all-female cast, director and playwright. It opened on Broadway last March, starring Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as The Girl. It was nominated for five Tony Awards, including best play.
Like other contemporary plays the Unicorn presents, “Eclipsed” (which runs through April 2) pushes the boundaries of traditional theater — starting with the cast, which is composed of five local black actresses. Though the play is about war, don’t expect to see any battle scenes; the action is set in a one-room, bullet-riddled shack, where the kidnapped “wives” of a commanding officer try to survive a new reality.
The arrival of a 15-year-old abducted girl (played by Teisha M. Bankston) sets the play into motion, as the older two wives try to protect her from the officer’s cruelty. Eventually, the women must choose whether to take up arms with the rebel forces or stay resigned to the only life they’ve ever known.
“Usually, when we think about war, it’s a hyper-masculine view of war, and I think it’s brilliant that this is about the female perspective: what happens to these women and how they’re affected living within this existence,” Bankston said. “It’s super intelligent and very right-on-point.”
Although the characters’ circumstances are dire, “Eclipsed” isn’t necessarily a depressing play. Lighter moments highlight the wives’ strength in the face of devastation, including a joyful and heartbreaking scene with a book. For Levin, the way they read a simple novel is how anyone else might respond to a day at Disneyland.
“What we find in the presentation of the play is how they choose to survive; where do they find pleasure and joy?” Levin said. “These women are put in a hut together and have to create a life together … but where do they find solace? Where do they find companionship?”
The plot line can take a toll on the cast. However, Dianne Yvette, who plays the eldest wife, tries to take a different approach.
“I see them more as survivors than as victims, so when you get into that point of talking about the depressing subject matter, I still see it as these women are survivors; they’re really, really strong,” she said. “The power that comes out of that is something that you can take into your regular life. You can overcome.”
Levin said the show’s realities aren’t as distant as they may seem.
“We do have privilege; most of us have jobs, and homes and automobiles. We’re not rich or famous or whatever, but we are privileged in the sense that we are free and we have choices,” Levin said. “Any one of us is a whole lot better off than a lot of people in the world.
“We have to be reminded of that: It’s about humanity. And none of us are free until all of us are free to have choice.”
Quality Hill Playhouse presents “Unchained Melody” Friday through April 9. The cabaret revue focuses on the doo-wop sounds of the 1950s, including hits like “Blue Moon,” “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” See QualityHillPlayhouse.com.