Lynn Nottage takes on one of playwriting’s toughest challenges — the dramatization of distant, gruesome political realities — in her elegant and eloquent new work, “Ruined.” Depicting the horrific toll sexual violence has taken on women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nottage balances the inexplicably awful with the ordinary, and even, in a carefully constrained way, the hopeful. In director Kate Whoriskey’s vibrant production, premiering at Chicago’s Goodman on its way to an Off Broadway slot with Manhattan Theater Club, Nottage values deeply honest characterizations over histrionic expressions of outrage, to emotionally wrenching effect.
Work focuses on Mama Nadi (Saidah Arrika Ekulona), an entrepreneurial woman clearly initially inspired by Mother Courage. But while the piece brims with similar themes to Bertolt Brecht’s depiction of war and commerce, this is a genuinely original work, and Mama Nadi, a mother only in her moniker, is constantly capable of surprising us.
The owner of a bar and brothel in the rainforest jungle of the Congo, where militias aligned with the government alternate control with militias currently not so aligned, Mama Nadi carefully avoids taking sides. In Nottage’s hands, and in a charismatic performance from Ekulona, the character’s displays of shrewd cold-heartedness hide a more generous spirit and, we discover in a very fine ending, a history of her own.
While she takes on the role of commerce in war in general, and this war in particular (the Congo’s minerals are used to make our omnipresent cell phones), Nottage avoids creating easy villains or making grand, global statements. Structured commerce, in fact, is presented here as a net positive, a veritable oasis.
Mr. Harari (Tom Mardirosian), the white businessman who frequents Mama Nadi’s establishment as he pursues deals for minerals, expresses huge frustration in not knowing whose palms to grease.
This is a world so distorted by the illogic of violence that the most basic moral judgments fall apart. Yes, Mama Nadi purchases women for prostitution, and a character we immediately like, the flirtatious salesman-poet Christian (the appealing Russell G. Jones, who finds charm in nerdishness), can be considered something of a glorified pimp as he arrives with new merchandise. But this place at least affords a degree of protection. In a land where up to 90% of the women have been raped in some villages, where women are literally wrenched from homes and kept tied to trees as sex slaves for years, prostitution is… what? A relative improvement?
In this world, the circumstance that draws the greatest alarm is women who are, as the title tells us, “ruined,” who have been raped so horribly that prostitution is an impossibility. The play launches with Christian talking Mama Nadi into accepting his own “ruined” niece Sophie (a still raw, but radiant Condola Phyleia Rashad) into her establishment as a means of protecting her from even worse possibilities.
Sophie comes along with Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), a woman torn from her family and then rejected by them. Nottage resists over-simplifying the emotional damage this history creates. When Salima’s husband comes looking for her, waiting outside the bar for days just to see her, the possibly romantic gesture is balanced with hard-headed realities, emerging in a couple of powerful monologues.
There’s also Josephine (Cherise Boothe), who likes to remind the others she’s the daughter of a “Chief,” a status that carries no weight in a failed state.
The play is not formally innovative in any way, and despite the obvious resistance to laying a traditional dramatic template over these stories, certain small contrivances creep in, almost by necessity, in the effort to find some positive way to wrap things up. But it all works.
Whoriskey convincingly fleshes out this world, mixing danger with continuing signs of vibrancy. There’s live music and occasional dancing, signs that life goes on no matter how morbid the past. The show moves to a determined beat, neither quickly paced nor lackadaisical. Derek McLane’s evocative set, with its full-on jungle of trees in the background, is both realistic and metaphorical, a keen representation of the dense moral thicket at play.
It’s to Whoriskey and Nottage’s credit that this environment, and these circumstances, quickly take on a disturbing ordinariness. The women’s lives under Mama Nadi are treated neither as tragic nor filled with hope. It’s a reality, a straightforward fact, a means of survival, and Nottage makes it her job to express the characters’ fullest humanity with as much honesty and depth as she can muster.