Playwright explores marginalized characters in 'Ruined'

Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined,” which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama, mulls the ongoing conflict in the Congo from an exclusively female perspective — her protagonists being residents of a female-owned brothel.

Nottage has delved into little-known terrain before — her play “Intimate Apparel” (2003) was centered on the life of a black seamstress in early 20th-century New York — but never so much so as in “Ruined,” which explores such difficult topics as rape and mutilation in unblinking fashion. “I’m interested in people who are dwelling outside the mainstream,” Nottage says. “And very often those people happen to be woman of color.”

At first, Nottage thought of taking a classic European play — specifically Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” — and updating it, but she changed course once she journeyed to Africa to do research with director Kate Whoriskey. “Once we began speaking with Congolese refugee women, retelling the story of ‘Mother Courage’ wasn’t relevant,” she says. “Why fall back on a Western template? Not that rape and warfare aren’t universal, but I felt these stories were unique to the Congo and that situation.”

The playwright was moved by what she heard — and empowered as well. “These women were going to human-rights organizations and refugee centers but felt no one was listening,” she says. “I told them I’d try to be helpful but that even if I did write this play I wasn’t sure I could find an audience for it.”

The play opened at Chicago’s Goodman Theater in 2008 and received its New York debut at the Manhattan Theater Club earlier this year. “I was worried people would turn away, given the difficult themes,” Nottage says. “But I was very pleasantly surprised by how readily audiences embraced the subject.”

She attributes the warm reception to a political shift. “Bush fostered a very xenophobic atmosphere,” she says. “But I think that’s changed with Obama.”

Yet “Ruined’s” achievement goes beyond that: “I think the play succeeds because it moves people in ways that surprise them.”

IN A NUTSHELL

Job title: Playwright

Role model: Paula Vogel

Career mantra: “Replace judgment with curiosity.”

Leisure pursuit: “I have no leisure time, but let’s say reading.”

Philanthropic passions: Madre, Women for Women Intl. and Equality Now.

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