Lynn Nottage said she wanted to write a play about the impact the civil war in the Congo was having on women. In Ruined, now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club - Stage I, she gives the conflict human faces and, as she did in Intimate Apparel, creates women who have been victimized, but don’t live as victims. This haunting and involving play reveals unthinkable horrors, but ultimately is about the power of hope and triumph of the human spirit.
Setting the play in a small mining town in the Ituri Rain Forest of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nottage envisioned Mama Nadi (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) as an African Mother Courage. Like Brecht’s famous character, this Mama is shrewd -- “It’s wind if you can’t put it on a scale. It’s nothing.” -- and her brothel services both government and rebel soldiers. But like Mother Courage, she looks out for her children, in this case the young women who work for her. “There must always be a part of you this war can't touch,” she says. And, in a third comparison, Mama proves that while she may be profiting from the young women, she’s also protecting them and is willing to sacrifice her safety to help them.
The comparison to Brecht doesn’t extend, though, to the way the play is presented. Nottage, 44, who won a MacArthur genius grant in 2007, creates characters who evoke deep emotion, whereas Brecht strove for distance so audiences would respond intellectually.
Kate Whoriskey directs a cast that is excellent across the board. Particularly moving are Condola Rashad as Sophie, a teenage girl who has been so brutalized with a bayonet that she walks stiffly and painfully with her legs spread, and Salima (Quincy Tyler Berstine) whose injuries aren’t as obvious but whose second act revelation of the horrors she suffered at the hands of rebels draws gasps from the audience. Salima works as one of Mama’s prostitutes; Sophie is unable to because she is “ruined,” so she sings in the bar portion of Mama’s establishment. “Every step I take I feel them in me, punching me,” she says.
The other cast members are Cherise Boothe, Chris Chalk, William Jackson Harper, Chiké Johnson, Russell Gebert Jones (in photo with Ekulona), Kevin Mambo and Tom Mardirosian.
Adding to the pulsing lifeblood of this play is the original music composed by Dominic Kanza, with lyrics by Nottage, and played by Simon Shabantu Kashama (guitar) and Ron McBee (drum). I would love to have a CD of this music, which is used to enliven the gatherings in Mama’s bar and to set the tone for different scenes.
Derek McLane (scenic design) has created a shabby but somewhat cheery bar and brothel, Paul Tazewell’s women’s costumes are rich with African color and design and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting design enhances both the tension and the grace of this world.
Nottage shaped her characters after doing extensive interviews with Congolese women, which is why they seem so real and compelling. I’d like to see this play again to more fully appreciate its richness.
Ruined premiered last fall at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, which is a co-producer of this production. It continues at City Center, 131 W. 55th St., through April 12. For tickets, call (212) 581-1212 or visit ManhattanTheatreClub.com.