In her role as the sword-wielding Michonne on The Walking Dead, Danai Gurira portrays a woman fighting her way through a world overrun by bloodthirsty zombies. While the show—the most-watched in cable television history—is based on a post-apocalyptic series of graphic novels, it’s instead a real-life story of terror and bloodshed that has inspired another of Gurira’s projects, her play Eclipsed, a production of which is running at New York’s Public Theater through November 29.
Eclipsed, Gurira’s second play, focuses on a group of five women—the wives of a warlord during Liberia’s bloody civil war and a Liberian peacemaker—as they navigate their precarious situation and attempt to define their identities in the face of widespread violence and seemingly limited options. “I was enthralled by an image I saw in the New York Times in 2003 of women in the Liberian war right when it was at its climax,” Gurira, 37, explains. “There were some women rebel fighters who were getting attention in the Western press because no one had ever seen anything like this. I was raised in Africa and I had never seen anything like it, women with AK-47s, dressed very hip and looking formidable. I was keen to one day pursue that story and put it on the stage.”
She began by writing monologues for characters based on these women, but not content to observe from afar, Gurira—who is herself American-born but was raised in Africa, where she lived for many years—made her way to Liberia in 2007 to conduct the next phase of her research on the ground. After working with a non-profit organization that used dramatic performances to teach far-flung villagers about the health and social issues of the day, the playwright says she was able to better understand the people she wanted to know as well as the characters she hoped to create. “I met amazing women who told me unbelievable things,” she says now. “They inspired a lot of the characters you see on the stage.”
And what characters they are. The four actresses featured in Eclipsed—Pascale Armand, Akosua Busia, Zainab Jah, Lupita Nyong’o and Saycon Sengbloh—have the opportunity to take on extraordinary roles, portraying women who are indeed living through a horrific war but who also make room for humor, dancing, joy and a scene-stealing obsession with one very out-of-date presidential biography. While the experience of Gurira’s characters might be unique, it’s the reliability of those characters that gives the work so much of its strength.
“The idea of calling it Eclipsed was about saying there is great light in these breathing, vivid characters who have personality and flavor,” Gurira says. “The idea is that their light has not been destroyed, it’s been blocked. But an eclipse is temporary. So, the hope in the title is that we will eventually start to see these women’s faces, to hear them and know them.”
It’s in large part the multifaceted nature of those characters that made the play so appealing to its cast. “Danai’s stories really give you a complex perspective from the African diaspora,” Sengbloh says. “She has an international appeal, she has an American appeal and she’s there for a number of different people and audiences.”
Being available to a wide audience is important in no small part because the atrocities depicted in Eclipsed are far from being things of the past. “Unfortunately, these are very current issues,” Gurira says. “And it is appalling that they are very current issues. One would think we’d have figured them out by now, but we haven’t and we still live in a world where women are disproportionally victimized, attacked, put into inhumane circumstances and left to feel perpetually unsafe. This is a huge global human rights issue that has not been resolved.”
But if anyone’s doing her part to shed light on the matter, it’s Gurira. While much of her time’s spent in Atlanta filming The Walking Dead, her New York stage presence won’t disappear when Eclipsed completes its run. Her Familiar—a look at a Zimbabwean family living in Minnesota—will be produced in Manhattan in early 2016, and once a few outstanding commissions for stage work are completed, Gurira says she’ll turn her attention toward writing for the screen.
“I feel very blessed to have opportunities right now that I definitely want to see through, opportunities that I yearned for and that are starting to really happen,” she says. “The possibility of seeing these opportunities through could bless a lot of other people, and so that is a responsibility and it is one I cannot take lightly.”