Monday, March 16, 2009

Ruined, by Lynn Nottage

Photo Joan Marcus
Manhattan Theatre Club

Lynn Nottage’s new play, Ruined (Manhattan Theatre Club, 3/8/09), rewrites Mother Courage and Her Children in the context of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She weaves a story that chills spectators with its violence and moves us with the remnants of compassion evident in even the most hard-boiled of the play’s characters. Mama Nadi (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) presides as the Madame of a bar and brothel isolated in a mining town in the middle of a rainforest, from which rebels and government soldiers roam and return.

Caught in the crossfire of men’s war, Mama Nadi and her girls survive by profiting from the men’s loneliness and their desire, appealing to them with seductive dance moves, sitting on their laps, teasing and cajoling them into parting with their cash and into joining the women in the bar’s back rooms, where higher prices can be charged for more intimate encounters.

Mama Nadi provides music, food, drink (however watered down her whiskey), and the comforts of female flesh to interchangeable batteries of men who arrive from the same forest, their chests adorned with weapons and their foreheads swathed in bandannas, their only distinguishing marks the color and cut of their uniforms. In fact, the warring soldiers in Ruined are played by the same male actors, implying that although their rhetoric is righteous, their brutality and crimes against humanity are equivalent and indistinguishable.

Mama Nadi’s, however, is no peaceful refuge. Only the force of her personality and the sexual pleasures with which she barters keep the soldiers from raping her and her girls and pillaging the small stores on which they survive. The social contract is utterly tenuous here; although the rainforest rows of dense trees comprise the back half of the set, they’re lit (by Peter Kaczorowski) ominously, almost as though they harbor the deliverers of the women’s violent demise. The precarious operation is both haven and hell, its safety and comfort mercurial.

Nottage builds the characters’ fear and tension slowly, delivering information about the setting and the political moment by carefully filling in the outline of her characters’ pasts, presents, and futures. When Christian (Russell Gebert Jones) arrives at the bar, along with the sundries and supplies he brings to sell to Mama Nadi, he offers her two other pieces of merchandise for the price of one. Not until he drags into the bar two dirty, clearly abused young women—Sophie and Salima—do we realize he’s been talking about people, so callus and indifferent appears the bartering between him and Mama.

Mama surveys the two women like a slave auctioneer. Sophie, Christian reveals, even though she’s beautiful, will be no good to Mama’s business because she’s been “ruined”; rebels have raped her with a bayonet and destroyed her genitals. Sophie walks with the ragged, uneven gait of someone who bears the memory of her assault in every move she makes. Despite her lack of value on Mama’s economy, the older woman reluctantly agrees to take Sophie in, along with the less physically broken young woman, Salima.

In between Mama’s tentative embrace of the two damaged women and their eventual losses and redemptions, Nottage demonstrates that Mama has more heart and shrewder politics than it at first appears. Although she treats her girls sternly, her gruff affection for them motivates her actions. Salima, too, has been raped by rebels, and forcibly separated from her husband and her little girl. Nottage unfolds Salima’s story across the play’s two acts, until her pregnancy as a result of rape, and the arrival of her desperate husband, combine to propel her to an unspeakable act that provides one of the play’s several climaxes.

Nottage modulates the play’s tension level, intercutting visits from rebels and government soldiers with more familial scenes of Mama and her girls, trying to establish some sense of a normal life in between the anxious moments with the men, whose brutality and arrogance are interchangeable. Mama and the girls suffer their presence because it puts food in their mouths, but the acts required of them in exchange fray their souls.

Sophie, however, pays her way through Mama’s employ by singing, accompanied by a guitarist and drummer who perform for the theatre’s spectators as much as for the characters in the bar. (Nottage wrote the songs’ lyrics to original music by Dominic Kanza.) Condola Rashad (Phylicia Rashad’s gorgeous young daughter) has a golden, bell-like singing voice that lights up her face. The beauty of that sound, ringing in a place of such spiritual and physical impoverishment, is a lush and heart-rending contradiction. The musical performances also provide a Brechtian element that lets spectators—and the characters—rest from the viciousness of the action, giving us a chance to breath, to think, to contemplate how a sound so beautiful could come from a situation so untenable.

The women focus Nottage’s anti-war plaint. Played by Ekulona, Mama is a powerhouse, whose gestus here, rather than Mother Courage’s fastening her teeth on each coin she earns, is to stuff into her bra the wads of cash she receives from the soldiers, patting at her breasts as they grow heavy with bills. Nestled close to her flesh and her heart, the money appears to go directly to sustenance, as though hidden from the work for which it’s payment. The money might be dirty, but lodged between her breasts, Mama Nadi rechristens it before she exchanges it with Christian for food (and the occasional piece of chocolate over which she’s enraptured).

Nottage emphasizes that the wages of war are visited on the bodies of women who are pawns in battles between men. When Salima stages her tragic protest late in the play, she shouts, “Don’t fight your wars on my body.” Ravaged by assault, these women nonetheless find dignity and strength. Mama, the towering, wily matriarch of this outpost, tells Christian, “I didn’t come as Mama Nadi; I found her here.” She steps into the shoes of a heroine, rising to an occasion not of her own making.

Men have failed these women. Salima’s husband was buying a new pot when the rebel soldiers overran their village and attacked her; she was an arbitrary victim in a war without rules, but her body bears the price. Pregnant, she cries that she’s carrying the “baby child of a monster.” As her husband pleads with Mama to allow him to see Salima, he holds the new pot in his fist, a pitiful symbol of reparations he’s unable to make.

In the play’s world—and in the real world of violence in the Congo Nottage references—raped women are considered damaged, as though the violence inflicted on their bodies is somehow their fault. Caught in such impossible contradictions, the women have nowhere to turn. Women like Mama capitalize on their spoiled flesh.

But Mama draws her empathy from another source. After a critical confrontation between the rebels and the soldiers, in which Christian and the women are caught as potential victims, life settles back into its uneasy rhythms. Christian, who’s trying to recover from alcoholism, and whose status as a merchant has marked him as somewhat less than a man throughout the play, finally articulates his love for Mama.

Suddenly, the play becomes a heterosexual romance, in which Mama and her girls are redeemed by the love of a good man. Before she can accept his affections, the previously stalwart Mama unravels with emotion, and tells Christian the secret that binds her to the women in her employ. The 11th hour confession, which Christian accepts on the way to reintegrating the nuclear family, is the play’s one false note, one that compromises the rigorous, clear-eyed story Ruined otherwise tells.

Would that Nottage had maintained her singular, Brechtian vision of the consequences of war for women to a more bitter end, instead of capitulating to realism’s mandate that narratives resolve with heterosexual marriage that solves everything. The gender politics of the Congo that Ruined describes with such force are compromised by this conservative happy ending.

Still, director Kate Whoriskey (who teaches at Princeton) stages a taut, muscular drama filled with compassionate, fierce performances (especially from Ekulona as Mama, Quincy Tyler Bernstine as the doomed Salima, and Cherise Boothe as their hardened colleague, Josephine). Rashad, as Sophie, is the story’s fragile, luminous center, the hope in the women’s despair. She makes Ruined a moving testament to survival.

The Feminist Spectator


  1. Greetings Feminist Spectator,

    Thank you for your views, thoughts and insights on Ruined. I trust I may, and would like to share my perspective(s).

    In all the years of my involvement with theatre, as participant, observer, student, teacher, I have only ever written back to one director (Fr. Damien Grimes in Uganda, and two playwrights: August Wilson, and recently Lyn Nottage). And this is the first time I am responding to a given set of views, hopefully to put across an alternative way of seeing the same thing.

    Let me share what I wrote to Lyn Nottage:

    What a play! It is plays like Ruined that drew me to the theatre. Unfortunately, they are first becoming extinct! You went very deep with the issues, Lyn, and drew out very special outcomes. I was a little afraid it would end at that very powerful scene, when the soldiers strike. And it could end there. (I would have ended it there). But the last scene was imperative, and, I don't say this lightly, genius!

    There is a phrase in the pictures Tony took, where the Congolese women say, "We have to go on with our lives". That is the most potent thought on the problem of war in Africa: beyond the CNN reports, more than the IMF or UN projects, is the will within ourselves. We survive by the ability to find our humanity, without which we would be wiped out! Ruined does a wonderful job of demonstrating (not preaching) that.

    Because crisis is crisis and then what? And then we find out, at the end of the day, who we are, and what we are capable of. If within us lays the capacity for such evil, within us must lay the capacity for some redemption.

    Note: I say above I would have ended it there – more because I write scripts, not because I think it is the more suited ending. The confession is a lesson that if we think far enough, we are bound to draw on a sense of humanity deep enough; I was born to a tough time in my world, and I rue the ugliness, but I love and cherish all the moments that made me feel good!

    Let me add a few things:

    1)Mother Courage: One of the challenges of African humanity is to be seen (often) in a Western world perspective. I have read other reviews to that effect about Mama Nadi, and the thinking held, before I saw the play, but not since. Mama Nadi is my grandmother, and the many women that I saw, or heard of, suffering because of war in my own country, Uganda. My grandmother’s little two bedroom house was a like a hostel, or camp, more so come war time; she knew naught of Mother Courage or Brecht; my grandmother (1929-1998), never stepped in school! I think Mother Courage engaged with the war focusing on the benefits she stood to gain - the cost, three dead children, was the unexpected price! Mama Nadi, however, is nursing a deep seated pain that she and only she understands in a way none of the people who come and go, or the soldiers who rupture her life, ignore, until Christian wakes up to the humanity inside him. The Mother Courage issue is debatable, because Lyn Nottage knows of Mother Courage, and of Brecht, but she also knows the women of Congo, who are regardless of Mother Courage or even Brecht, if I may say.
    2) I do know that Lyn Nottage did her research, in Uganda and in Congo; I know what she found out a great deal about the plight of women during and because of war; I do not know what she found out about the role of men in war, apart from the obvious, our bestiality but I am concerned that the humanity of African men be understood (as well).
    3) Coming from a country where Presidency never changes until coup time, and coup time spells war, I have sworn to myself, and to folks I engage in dialogue with that I will not engage in war to overthrow a leader as I know considerably well the toll of war on women and children by any of the losing sides, and, often, by both sides! Ruined demonstrated that ever so well!
    4) But without that ending, I would have felt dispirited, instead of the need to continue the struggle of many an African: to do what we can to hold together our lives after the war mongers, rebels and government troops alike (with the participation of Western world powers, read, interests), have taken their toll. As an African who has severally been subject to war, and who need not turn this into a personal tale, I have at times felt let down at certain forums where the suggestion that women suffer during war and men do nothing becomes a currency to be thoughtlessly exploited!

    I went into the show with a certain fear, and came out feeling the story of life in Africa is finally being told from a point of view of humanity: that is the essence of the last scene!

  2. Susan Russell9/28/2009 6:55 AM

    I recently saw the world premiere of ECLIPSED by Danai Gurira at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in D.C. I also saw J. T. Rogers' THE OVERWHELMING in New York earlier this year. All three plays bear comparison because they deal with atrocities in Africa (Liberia, Rwanda, and Congo respectively)--though, of course, all three areas are distinctly different cases, etc. All three are very moving plays. THE OVERWHELMING by J. T. Rogers has a more traditional story line ("white guy comes into 'native' territory and tries to figure out what's happening--audience learns as he does). ECLIPSED is very different because it just focuses on the women and their stories, avoiding the trap Dr. Dolan mentions above (other reviews have also noted that the ending is a bit soap-operay). I write not to disparage RUINED, though. Rather, I write here to call attention to Gurira's play; also to note that all three plays are notable in that they all three effectively (I believe) call attention to humanitarian crises people in the West are often unaware of, albeit in varied ways (all realism/semi-documentary, based on interviews).