The Pulitzer flags should be flying over Lynn Nottage’s acclaimed play, Ruined, which I saw recently during its NY run. The play exposes the horrors of terror rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) through the stories of victims of the crime.
Nottage chose to write a play about the strife in the Congo much the same way I was drawn into the crisis with Heart of Diamonds. She started out to write something else–in her case, an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage–but was compelled by the reality of the modern tragedy in the DRC to create an entirely different work. The world should be thankful she made that choice.
Ruined centers on Mama Nadi and her tavern cum whorehouse in the Ituri region of the Congo. The stories of Mama Nadi’s “girls” are told in a swelling chorus of pathos among a parade of soldiers, rebels, miners, and traders who show up looking for relief from the violence wracking the countryside.
Each of the women tells a story of how they were victimized by the conflict. Josephine (played by Cherise Boothe), the daughter of a village chief, had been cast adrift when the social structure of her homeland was destroyed by war over the region’s mineral wealth. Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) was snatched by rebels and used as a sex slave for five months before she returned to her village, only to be rejected by her husband and family.
The plot revolves around Sophie (Condola Rashad), who was “ruined” by a gang of rebels who mutilated her genitals in an act of terror rape all too common in the Congo today. Rashad’s performance perfectly captures the tragic effects of the crime. Her sweetly innocent face contrasts sharply with the awkward way her body moves in response to the constant pain from her injuries.
In an telling touch, most of the soldiers, rebels, and miners are played by the same cast members in alternating roles, emphasizing the shifting nature of loyalties and alliances in the real conflict playing out today in the Congo.
Mama Nadi is the star of the play and Saidah Arrika Ekulona portrays her as a flamboyant, strong-willed survivor, hard-crusted but soft-hearted, a woman for the ages. Her bravery in the face of the ever-heightening violence is the pillar that supports the entire play.
The emotional climax comes early in the second act (in a scene that reminded me greatly of Ogastine’s story in Heart of Diamonds) when Salima delivers a soliloquy about her horrific experience. The audience literally gasped when she described the details of her capture, then you could hear them squirming uncomfortably as she told how she was used as a sex slave. The theater was struck silent when she related her return to her village expecting succor only to be given the back of the hand and driven away by her husband.
The heart-wrenching, mind-stopping production premiered last fall at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and moved to Manhattan Theater Club’s Stage 1 at City Center (where I saw it) this month for a limited time. The run in New York has been extended, but it will probably end soon, so I strongly recommend you order tickets today.