After a sold-out run at The Public Theater in the fall of 2015, Eclipsed moved to Broadway this spring, bringing the dynamic story of five Liberian women and their tale of survival near the end of the Second Liberian Civil War. We caught up with star Saycon Sengbloh to talk about the hit show and its resonance in today’s culture.
You’ve been a part of some of Broadway’s biggest shows. Aida, Wicked, Fela!, and Motown the Musical, to name a few. Now, you’re starring in the acclaimed play Eclipsed. What is your favorite part of the process of putting up a new show?
My favorite part is in the very beginning, the table read. The excitement of the table read cannot be beat. All of the producers and actor’s hearts beating, excited to do their best in the first reading of the script, to dig deep and show off why they are the right ones to play that character.
Of the shows you’ve been a part of up until now, which have had particular resonance with you and how did they affect you?
The show FELA! was particularly moving for me because with that show I went to Africa for the first time. Visiting Nigeria was amazing, having an opportunity to present that show on Broadway to American audiences and to the Nigerian audience was wonderful. I believe that our world is so diverse and it is very important in New York that we have a very multi-cultural enjoyment of the theater.
The story and subject matter of Eclipsed echoes what’s happening in the news and around the world. Being a part of art that has a purpose beyond entertainment, what sort of responsibility do you feel as the artist?
My main and first responsibility is to perform for them and to bring the characters to life. I have all sorts of opinions about things but I do not want my personal opinions to affect people’s understanding or appreciation of the characters I play. They are characters, dramatized and brought to life. Even those based on real people are being dramatized for the two and a half hours that you watch. As an artist, my purpose is to perform art and present art. I am a storyteller.
How has your involvement with this play changed you both on and off stage?
Being involved in Eclipsed has absolutely changed me. It’s brought me closer to my family. Eclipsed has happened at a pivotal point in my life. I’ve traveled a lot more and my mind is more open to the possibilities in the world and for my own personal life as well. My mother is American and my father was from Liberia. I pray for Liberia. I have wept for Liberia even though I have never been to Liberia. Eclipsed brings a piece of Liberia to me each night.
Between Eclipsed, Hamilton, The Color Purple, On Your Feet, Allegiance, Shuffle Along – it’s a banner year for Broadway shows featuring actors who aren’t white. Your show stands as the only show on Broadway this season written by a woman, with an all-female cast and directed by a woman, all of which are women of color. How do we maintain this momentum and keep it from being a one-off season?
You know, I don’t know. Liberians have a saying, “It not easy oh!” We have to simply be, do the work and let the work speak for itself. But we also need a diverse audience to support the show and actually buy a ticket to see what all the fuss is about.
You were a part of the original production of The Color Purple, which is seeing new life this season.
I’m so happy that this is being revived! That story deserves a revival! I’m proud to have been a part of the beginning. I’m sure they are tired of us original or workshop people bringing up our involvement in it as many of us do, but we see so much in them and it really comes naturally because you literally feel the energy of where things have come from in the theatrical experience of The Color Purple. I look forward to seeing this new version with the new direction. It’s really beautiful to see the faces of the people playing those parts in that beautiful show again.
What keeps you continuously inspired as an artist?
People, animals, beauty, and visual things inspire me.
For a young person looking at you on stage and wishing they were up there, what advice do you have?
Take your craft seriously. Take what you do seriously despite our fast lifestyle, constant texting and social media. Learn how to have deep conversations with people. Find something beautiful to say about things. Dwelling on pessimism and negativity will get you more of the same.
What’s next for you?
I’m awaiting the release of my new movie DoublePlay! I’m looking forward to seeing that! Look out for it, it’s directed by Ernest Dickerson.