In previews now at the Geffen Playhouse, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Ruined,” tells the improbably uplifting story of a tawdry haven from an unimaginably cruel world where soldiers and the rebels they fight routinely rape, mutilate, and murder women for sport, sometimes chaining them like goats to stakes and taking their pleasure in turn as if having “soup before dinner.”
At Mama Nadi’s, a mining town brothel at the battlefront in present-day Democratic Republic of Congo’s civil war, a lucky few of these women find refuge from an even worse fate by offering their bodies to soldiers, rebels, miners, and passing peddlers alike, their spirits buoyed by impossible dreams.
Sophie, the beautiful young bar singer and book keeper played by Condola Rashad, dreams of saving—or stealing—enough money to pay for an operation to repair her sexual mutilation at the hands of soldiers who left her for dead. Josephine, the chieftain’s daughter turned sensuous seductress played by Cherise Boothe, fondly believes a Lebanese trader named Mister Hariri (Tom Mardirosian) will whisk her off to the capitol, which she has never seen—and we suspect never will.
Salima, the wife and mother played by Quincey Tyler Bernstine who was ostracized by her village after she was defiled and disfigured by soldiers, holds on to the hope that her husband will relent and take her back. And Mama Nadi herself, played with riveting force by Portia, holds fast to her dream of someday owning some small plot of land that no man can take from her.
Nottage based her extraordinary work on interviews with Congolese refugees in Uganda, which she visited with Director Kate Whoriskey. Originally planning to produce an update on Bertold Brecht’s “Mother Courage,” Nottage seeks instead in “Ruined” to give voice to the real-life horrors of women caught in the Congo’s endless war and to the sprit that sustains at least some of them in the face of unimaginable evil.
As reported here by Georgianne Nienaber, the horrific treatment of Congolese women is the stone cold truth, and it is happening now. Any theatrical portrayal of such brutality would be impossibly bleak were it not for the play’s engaging musicality, African rhythms, riveting dancing, and flawless acting that lets the audience forget for just a moment—just as it does for the desperate revelers inside Mama Nadi’s—what horrors lurk in the forbidding rain forest just outside.
And yet, because the audience knows the playwright’s fanciful inventions are true to a grim reality, we are pulled back to the gravity of African’s human rights struggle at every turn. The miners dig for diamonds and coltan, which is used to create semiconductor devices. The militias fight to control the abundant mineral wealth of the Eastern Congo unearthed by the miners. And the women are simply hapless victims in a sea of mindless greed and rampant cruelty, servicing miner and soldier alike. Just beneath the singing and dancing and bawdy repartee, you know that truth is there.
In equal parts calculation and compassion, Mama Nadi runs her enterprise with a businesswoman’s iron hand, forcing the roughest of soldiers to disarm themselves and the filthiest of miners to wash before enjoying her whorehouse’s pleasures. In turn, she exploits her young charges—girls, really, who escape to romance novels and fingernail painting parties in their downtime—while also protecting them from the worst the world has to offer.
But despite Mama Nadi’s best efforts, that world intrudes, for evil and for good, as first the opposing military commanders inevitably catch onto her duplicity, and then as she is surprisingly snared by the romantic trap set by Christian, the sometimes drunken, sometimes sober traveling salesman and procurer played by Russell G. Jones. Christian and Mama Nadi’s romantic dance concludes the play on the hopeful note that “ruined” may not be forever. If only the same could be true for the devastation visited upon Congolese tribal women.
“Theatre at its finest,” said a fellow theatergoer on the way up the aisle, and it is. “Ruined” opens officially September 15 at the Geffen Playhouse and runs through October 17, after which the company will take it to South Africa.