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Lupita Nyong’o on Her ‘Terrifying’ Broadway Role in ‘Eclipsed’

It’s rare for an instant A-lister like Lupita Nyong’o to return to the stage just as her movie career is kicking into high gear. But that’s what Nyong’o did, starring in “Eclipsed,” the drama by Danai Gurira (“The Walking Dead”), right after appearing in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and two years following her Oscar win for “12 Years a Slave.” Not only did she commit to “Eclipsed” for its 10-week run at Off Broadway’s Public Theater in the fall, she’s sticking with it for a Broadway run this spring. The actress talked to Variety about her decision.

You’re at a huge peak in your movie career. Why choose now to go back to theater?
I’m a child of the theater. My father used to recite Shakespeare to me when I was 5 years old. It’s something that’s very, very dear to me. And I think theater offers a chance to flex muscles that then only help to sustain cinematic work. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to get back to theater at the point that I did. I’d experienced unprecedented success with my first film, and I really wanted to get back to the craft of it, just to remind myself, “Wait, what is it that I do again?” The best way to find out is on stage.

You understudied “Eclipsed” back at Yale Rep in 2009.
It was the very first show I ever understudied. I remember sitting in those rehearsal rooms and just feeling so lucky, so fortunate, that this play existed and I got to witness it being made. What moved me about it — I didn’t know anything about Liberia, really, until I was in that room. And how much I learned about that specific circumstance, and yet how relevant it was to me, outside of it — that’s the beauty of a good play, is that you can really cross oceans and tell a universal story that is also very, very specific. It’s in its specificity that you experience something special.

What compelled you to come back to “Eclipsed”?
It’s one of those things where I don’t think I can really identify what it was, and I don’t care to really find out why. It’s the part I felt I was called to play. I don’t know. It terrified me, first of all. The character I play, the Girl, terrified me. The whole play terrified me, and that’s why I knew I had to do it.

How well did you remember the play, going back into rehearsal for it six years later?
What I’ve never really admitted to is that after I understudied that play in 2009, it stayed with me, but I never picked up the play again until our first read-through at the Public. And so while I was championing for this play to be done, I hadn’t yet sat down to revisit it and see whether indeed I still liked it or not. It just left such a strong impression. In that reading, I remember thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?”

And? What did you get yourself into?
What Danai has done so captivatingly is that she has created this story about these women in unimaginable circumstances, and she has given each one of them agency, and also a chance to have their story told. It’s a real ensemble piece, and I love that, because it gives every single person equal opportunity and equal commitment to the story and to their parts. With the actors that I’m doing it with, it’s just always surprising. Very committed and dangerous. When we get up on that stage, you do not know what will happen.

“Eclipsed” opens at Broadway’s John Golden Theater March 6.

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