Lupita Nyong’o Shines a Light on Africa

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Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o and Liesl Tommy at the Public Theater in New York. Credit Jesse Dittmar for The New York Times

A few days after arriving at the Yale School of Drama from Kenya in 2009, Lupita Nyong’o found herself understudying in a professional production of “Eclipsed,” Danai Gurira’s harrowing play about women in the second Liberian civil war.

“I never had to go on,” Ms. Nyong’o recalled recently, pantomiming a relieved wipe of the brow.

But Ms. Gurira’s play — and the role of the Girl, the youngest of four captive wives of a rebel commander — stuck with her. And so when Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, met with her last year to discuss a return to the stage following the frenzy surrounding her Academy Award-winning screen debut in “12 Years a Slave,” Ms. Nyong’o was adamant.

“I had sat down with myself after the whirlwind year I’d had and thought about what I really wanted to do, and it was just ‘Eclipsed,’ ” she said. “So when Oskar offered me some plays to read and asked whether I’d be interested in doing any of them, I just said, ‘Nope, I want to do ‘Eclipsed.’ ”

Yale Repertory Theater’s production of “Eclipsed,” with Adepero Oduye, left, Pascale Armand, seated, and Stacey Sargeant. Credit Carol Rosegg

And now, she is. “Eclipsed,” which begins previews at the Public on Tuesday, Sept. 29, and runs through Nov. 29, marks Ms. Nyong’o’s New York stage debut, as well as her first appearance on any stage since “12 Years a Slave” catapulted her to celebrity. (More is likely to come, as she’ll be on screen later this year in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”)

The production also reunites Ms. Nyong’o with two other African women artists who are blending serious theatrical careers with high-profile gigs in the global entertainment complex.

Ms. Gurira, a Zimbabwean-American whose plays about African women have won her an Obie award and other accolades, also happens to wield the sword as Michonne, the fierce warrior on AMC’s smash-hit “The Walking Dead.” And the play’s director, South-African born Liesl Tommy, has been tapped for a stage adaptation of a movie she would describe only as involving a budget “that’s bigger than I actually thought you could spend on a thing.”

“Eclipsed,” with its intense subject matter and painstakingly authentic (and often surprisingly funny) Liberian English dialogue, did not have an easy route to New York. But Mr. Eustis said that while Ms. Nyong’o’s interest drove the project, the play’s subtle depiction of a group of women struggling to salvage some humanity amid the war’s horror — performed by an ensemble of mostly African actresses — more than carries the day.

“In rehearsal, you feel very much that you’re in a room that is not only making a show about African women, but one that is led by African women,” he said. “You feel the authenticity of this brilliantly written play with an absolutely visceral power.”

Ms. Nyong’o and Ms. Gurira, who have been friends since the mid-2000s, and Ms. Tommy, who also directed the 2009 Yale production, talked about their collaboration in a joint interview at the Public following a full run-through last weekend, before Ms. Gurira hopped a plane to Atlanta to make a 5:42 a.m. call for “The Walking Dead.” (Sorry, fans, she divulged no details about the new season.)

Lupita Nyong'o Credit Jesse Dittmar for The New York Times

There was palpable camaraderie — “Bye, darling, we’ll check in on many things” Ms. Tommy whispered as Ms. Gurira rushed out the door early — and a lot more joking than you might expect from a group that had just enacted a story touching on almost unimaginable violence.

“The most fun part of doing this play is how much we laugh in the rehearsal room, how goofy we can be,” Ms. Tommy said. “We always used to joke about it during apartheid days: We’re laughing through our tears.”

These are excerpts from the conversation.

Q. It’s been six years since you three worked together on the production of “Eclipsed” at Yale Rep. Why did it take so long to get the play to New York?

A. LIESL TOMMY We had a moment with that production where we were just hustling it, but there was another play that was happening about women in Africa [Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined,” set in a Congolese brothel during that country’s civil war], and we got the sense that people felt like one was more than enough. There is an unending appetite for plays about upper-middle-class white people talking about their pregnancies and their real estate, and no one ever sees that as redundant. However, two plays about African women was apparently more than anybody could handle. So when we realized we were dealing with that level of small-mindedness, we had to kind of let it go.

DANAI GURIRA I got to see it done in other countries. It was done twice in South Africa, it was done in Zimbabwe. It was just done in London. It’s always been kind of thrilling to see how it’s been rebirthed in different places. But New York is the mecca, and it never got to touch here.

Michael Fassbender, left, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave." Credit Francois Duhamel/Fox Searchlight Pictures

And then came Lupita. Do you think there is an increased openness to African stories and African voices, or does it still take a big star to get material like this prominently staged?

TOMMY One thing about “Eclipsed” is that we save ourselves in this play. No white person, no American, no aid worker or U.N. person comes in, which has generally been what audiences have wanted to see in the past. I think with this play what we’re teaching folks is that there are plenty of interesting stories that happen on the vast continent of Africa, and that you can relate to them without seeing yourself, your race, or a version of yourself in it.

Lupita, your film career has gone crazy since “12 Years a Slave.” Why did you want to return to the stage right now, and why with this play?

LUPITA NYONG’O I did a lot of expressing of myself during the campaign for “12 Years,” and I needed to get back to who I was as a performer, as an actor, as a beginner. The thing about winning a prestigious award is that in a sense you’re being told that you’re an expert. But when you play a role, you’re always a beginner. And I love the communal experience of theater, of getting to really go deep and to play with other people and create together.

I grew up in a country and in a world that consumed a lot of Western popular culture, and so I was starved for stories about people like me. This seemed like a prime opportunity to do a story about Africans that also really allowed me to stretch myself, to experience totally different circumstances from the ones I grew up in.

You were each born or raised in different parts of Africa, and four of the five actors in “Eclipsed” also have direct roots there. Does that broader African identity allow you all to bring something specific to this particular story about Liberia?

Danai Gurira Credit Jesse Dittmar for The New York Times

TOMMY I have been very adamant with the audition process from the beginning about wanting to look for African actresses. We see a lot of depictions of ourselves that are just not accurate. This is going to be controversial, but it’s torture for me to watch a lot of non-African people who play Africans. There’s just so much that is affected. It’s a Western idea of what African-ness is. It’s often a very general idea, which to me is death.

GURIRA I really love seeing the play be reinterpreted by different African women, seeing the specificity and the nuance, how they break open the things that I put on the page. There’s no explanation that needs to happen in terms of what this culture is, who these people are.

You’ve all gotten huge opportunities in film and TV, with projects like “Star Wars” and “The Walking Dead” and Liesl’s film project. Is being part of that globalized entertainment phenomena something you even imagined when you were starting out?

GURIRA I never, ever, ever fathomed I would play a comic book character, never in my wildest dreams. My goals had always been connected with bringing the African female voice to the global stage. That was my diatribe. I did have this thing in my head right after grad school because I was an unemployed actor with a lot of energy, and I’d be on the treadmill, thinking I wanted to do some action-chick thing someday. But I thought that’ll probably never happen, so I carried on with my life.

When I got the audition for Michonne, I thought, Dreadlocks and a sword? Who is this? And then, funnily, when I did a lot of research on her, I was reminded of some of the women soldiers from the Liberian war I had researched when writing “Eclipsed.” Here was a woman who became her own weapon, because she wasn’t going to be reliant on a world that had turned hostile against her.

TOMMY You’re basically playing Maima [the female soldier who tries to recruit the Girl in “Eclipsed”]!

Danai Gurira, center, with Andrew Lincoln and Lennie James in “The Walking Dead." Credit Gene Page/AMC

GURIRA Yeah! I’m always looking for something that will anchor me. Seeing that parallel really made me want to play the part.

Liesl and Lupita, what are your thoughts about being part of these huge pop-culture projects?

TOMMY I had a moment when I was sitting with these six male executives — I didn’t even have to interview, they just asked me to do it — and I just thought, I’ve done nothing but political theater my whole life. How is it even possible that I’m sitting at this table? We’ve been working on it for almost a year now, and for them it’s the intensity of the storytelling. What they value is emotional connection and for audiences to invest something in their characters, and that’s what they feel like I do.

NYONG’O There’s value in dichotomy, yin and yang. What the three of us are doing is diversifying the stories that African bodies are telling. At the end of the day, to be African is to be human, and so we can participate in big franchises or what have you and bring our spirit and color to that world, and at the same time, do something that’s about ourselves in a more specific way.

In “Star Wars,” you play a space pirate named Maz Kanata. What made you want to play a motion-capture character?

NYONG’O I loved the fact that I was going to be stretching myself to play something that wasn’t limited by my physical circumstances. It was like the ultimate imaginative challenge. I had to keep track of what I physically looked like to everyone, and keep that in mind when I made my choices without physically being that thing.

From left, Liesl Tommy, Lupita Nyong'o and Danai Gurira. Credit Jesse Dittmar for The New York Times

Danai, your new play, “Familiar,” which opens at Playwrights Horizons in New York in February, is a much more comic piece about an assimilated Zimbabwean-American family thrown into an uproar when a daughter, who is marrying a white American, announces she wants to follow a traditional African wedding custom. Is this your answer to all those plays about upper-middle-class people talking about their pregnancies and real estate?

GURIRA I never planned to write anything even vaguely related to my own family. I always thought, [in a mock-serious voice] “No, there are big stories that must be told!” But a few years ago I was at a family wedding, and I felt how I imagined Chekhov must have felt ...

This is really my version of sitting back and looking at some of the absurdities of your own people in a contemporary context. “Americanah” [Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel about a young Nigerian woman who immigrates to America, which Ms. Nyong’o is developing as a movie] is a whole other sort of story on it. It’s a brilliant, beautiful, astounding novel. There’s a whole other America, the story of Africans in America, that is completely under-told. It’s time.

“Eclipsed” has already been extended twice. Is there room in your schedules for the production to go elsewhere?

TOMMY Who knows? There’s a lot going on.

NYONG’O [In a dramatic voice] Dot dot dot.

TOMMY I do want to add that when I was starting out, there were no black women directors that I could look at and say, “That’s the career I want.” That I’m able to be in a position of leadership with this much support, to tell this story, isn’t something I take for granted. None of us take these positions for granted, because they still don’t always trust us with [stuff]. That we’re able to forge ahead with a story that matters so much to us is amazing.