Sexual violence against women as a side effect of civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the kind of subject most of us read about in a Nicholas Krystof column or watch on a CNN report, shaking our heads in horror before moving on. But in Lynn Nottage’s emotionally scorching new play, it’s impossible to look away. “Ruined” takes us inside an unthinkable reality and into the heads of victims and perpetrators to create a full-immersion drama of shocking complexity and moral ambiguity. What’s more surprising is the exquisite balance the playwright brings — of brutality and poetry, hope and even humor.
There’s nothing preachy or educational about Kate Whoriskey’s vividly atmospheric production, which debuted at Chicago’s Goodman Theater last fall and now segues, with its formidable ensemble intact, to an Off Broadway run with Manhattan Theater Club. This is muscular drama with real, richly textured characters, driven by powerful narrative momentum, pulsating music and heartfelt compassion. It’s not structurally perfect, but it’s riveting.
The central figure is Mama Nadi (Saidah Arrika Ekulona), owner of a ramshackle bar and brothel in a small mining town in the Ituri rain forest, vibrantly evoked by designer Derek McLane and lighting chief Peter Kaczorowski in a brightly painted wooden set amid a maze of denuded trees. The character was clearly inspired by Brecht’s Mother Courage, a staunchly apolitical wartime opportunist, but Mama Nadi is as much a protective figure as an exploitative one.
She purchases girls, most of them rape victims subsequently shunned by their families and villages, from traveling salesman Christian (Russell Gebert Jones). She puts them to work whoring for coltan miners, government-backed militia or the rebel forces that oppose them. In the twisted morality of this world, where women are property, Mama Nadi at least provides an alternative to abuse and sexual mutilation.
“If things are good, everyone gets a little,” Mama advises a new acquisition. “If things are bad, then Mama eats first.” Beneath her businesslike sternness, however, there’s creeping evidence of den-mother tenderness, making her a character who defies black-or-white judgment.
Nottage traveled to the refugee camps of Uganda in 2004 and interviewed brutalized Congolese women whose stories became the basis for this play. But rather than imposing a journalistic feel on the work, or even the expected outrage of a firsthand observer of atrocity, the approach has yielded an overwhelmingly personal drama etched deep with heartbreaking character details and harrowing experience.
Political backgrounding to the conflict that lays waste to the land and its people is secondary to the human focus. In addition to Mama, whose spiky banter with shyly flirtatious Christian provides a poignant thread, Nottage creates three-dimensional figures out of three of the women who live and work at the bar.
Proud, combative and aggressively sensual Josephine (Cherise Boothe) boasts repeatedly that she was the daughter of a chief, even though that former status now means nothing. Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) was taken from her farm and kept chained to a tree for five months to be used by soldiers. And Sophie (Condola Rashad) is too “ruined” by sexual violence to work as a prostitute, but Christian, her uncle, coaxes Mama Nadi into sheltering the educated girl.
Under Whoriskey’s gentle guiding hand, these characters and their relationships take shape fluidly in the leisurely first act, frequently energized by Dominic Kanza’s soukous music and the entreating mellifluousness of Rashad’s singing. The second act is more uneven, stacking up too many speechy monologues that serve to recount the characters’ experiences, spell out their philosophies or state their positions. But it’s a testament to the play, to the production’s integrity and to the cast’s impassioned commitment that the drama’s power is never sacrificed. The plight of Salima, in particular, is devastating, related by Bernstine in all its distressing detail yet elevated by this misused girl’s resilient spirit and her ability to recall still the beauty of a vine of ripe tomatoes on a perfect sunny day. The rain-soaked vigil of her penitent husband Fortune (Chike Johnson) further deepens the emotional pull of this plot strand, embodying countless humble farmers and workers with guns thrust into their hands.
Nottage and Whoriskey illustrate enough of the violence to unsettle their audience while staying well clear of dramatic overkill. Instead, they solicit our feelings toward the characters less via their suffering than through sharp insights into their conflicted responses to this vicious world. Tension is expertly sustained throughout, reaching palpable levels whenever the volatile leaders of the rival militia (Chris Chalk, Kevin Mambo) are onstage, using their standover tactics to spread fear like a virus among the women.
Each character is very specifically and distinctly physicalized, enhanced by the sharp eye for detail in Paul Tazewell’s costumes. Appropriately for a woman whose strutting imperiousness and hardass pragmatism mask her feelings to a great degree, Ekulona puts an amusingly broad spin on Mama Nadi at times, making it tremendously moving when more of her true self is revealed.
Boothe prowls and poses, the fragility beneath her voluptuous swagger exposed in a visceral dance into which Josephine channels herself body and soul. Limping with the visible pain of a woman who has endured unspeakable damage, Rashad’s Sophie is nonetheless unbroken, outspoken and unexpectedly self-possessed, while Bernstine shuffles along like a dazed puppy, stunned into compliance. Jones is all gangly, awkward charm as Christian, his persistence with stubbornly aloof Mama Nadi steering the play toward a more conventional ending that nevertheless earns its emotional uplift honestly.
“Love is too fragile a sentiment for out here,” says Mama Nadi. But it’s love and humanity that give this stirring play its vitality. Nottage’s achievement is that without in any way trivializing a political situation fraught with injustice, she has crafted a work that speaks eloquently of the monstrous acts bred by war, and of the courage and compromises required to survive them.