The first time I met Danai Gurira was in 2014. We were both at the ONE Campaign’s AYA Summit, and it was there that I got to see how incredible she is. People know her mostly as Michonne from The Walking Dead, but she is also a gifted orator and playwright. At AYA, Danai performed 3 scenes of a play she wrote about the Liberian civil war, and the women of war whose stories are always erased from the narrative. She got on that stage and played the role of 3 characters, changing voices and making us forget that it was just her standing up there. I think I was breathless the whole time, because the girl soldiers she portrayed stole my air.
After she was done, she got a very deserving standing ovation. This was my introduction to ECLIPSED, a play she had written in 2008. She got frustrated from not seeing stories that mattered. Where were the stories about Africa, that had layers, even when talking about war and famine? The best things that are created are the things we look for but don’t find. “Necessity is the mother of invention.” She is from Zimbabwe, and when she went to Liberia, she heard about the girl soldiers, who are oft-invisible in stories of the war. When the Liberian women she spoke with told her “You’re our sister,” she was emboldened to write and tell their story, with their permission.
ECLIPSED went from being performed at Yale, to other small theaters over the years. And the women who starred in it were African, as well. Many of them were part of the original cast in those days, and one of these women? You might have heard of her: Lupita Nyong’o. Before she slayed the entire world, she was slaying on the theater stage.
Last year, ECLIPSED made it on Broadway, and made history while it did it. It was the first Broadway show that was written, directed and starred an all-female cast. Lupita, Saycon Sengbloh, Zainab Jah, Pascale Armand and Akosua Busia played brought the show to life in their roles. It was directed by Liesl Tommy, who is a South African woman. And of course, Danai is the reason those words are on paper. 7 African women, on Broadway, telling the stories of African women. The fact that it is historic is saddening.
I ended up seeing the play TWICE last year because it was just that good. It was heartwrenching, inspiring, captivating, FUNNY. One of the times I went, I got to go backstage to meet the cast.
The woman in the center in green should look familiar to Color Purple stans. Akosua played Nettie in the 1985 film. BUT TELL ME WHY SHE HASN’T AGED. Please explain to me what voodoo she do. I told her as much and she responded by telling me “OMG THIS FACE. LOOK AT THESE CHEEKBONES. Your face is beautiful!” Chile, I coulda died on the spot.
And lemme also mention how when I talked backstage, Lupita said “Luvvie!!!” And then she gave me a hug and then she turned to her fellow castmembers and said “Luvvie’s blog is one that every African woman should be reading.” And Danai agreed and was like “yeah it’s great!” 1,000 goats couldn’t tell me nothing for at least 3 weeks afterwards.
These women did amazing things with this play. It ended up being nominated for 6 TONY Awards, winning for “Best Costume Design” and even though its run is over, ECLIPSED is not forgotten.
BET International decided to pull back the curtains on the play, to tell the story of how it came to be and its journey to Broadway.
They wanted to explore the story, the hurdles and how it got championed by the right people so it could take 45th street by storm. And how even as it was lighting people’s lives up, Liesl and Danai still had people questioning whether this story belonged on Broadway. “Behind the Curtain: ECLIPSED” is a 3-part documentary that chronicles the story behind the story.
I got to see it and was inspired. Every overnight success took years, and this was no different. We need to keep telling the stories of those who have been blotted out of their rightful place in history. We need to create or be vehicles to the art we want to consume. And we need to be people who use our power to champion the work we love.
As Danai said at the end of the documentary: “The rage in the title is that there’s a block of light. The hope in the title is that an ECLIPSE is temporary. And it is on us to make sure that it’s so… I want to leave me audience with a touch of indictment. That there’s work to be done.”
You can watch Behind the Curtains: ECLIPSED on Centric on March 1 at 8pm EST.
P.S. The executive producer is Ava Hall. Are people named “Ava” just bomb storytellers? Sheesh!
This post was sponsored by BET, but as always, all thoughts are mine. I keep it 100 at all times.