What’s Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s play, Ruined, really about? Is it about the civil wars that ravaged the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)? Is it about Mama Nadi (Valerie Lewis)’s bar-restaurant-brothel that is both a business and a place of refuge? Is it about a culture that makes victims of repeated rapes social outcasts, like Sophie (Chevee Crafton) and her friend, Salima (Yakima Rich)? Or is it really a love story, between a jaded woman whose unwavering cynicism is her key to survival and an orange Fanta-sipping poet, Christian (Tyrone Requer), whose name reflects a spirit of kindness that is endemic to his character?
How about all of the above?
Ruined is a multi-layered work that finds its roots in the playwright’s own interviews with Congolese women who were sexually terrorized during the DRC civil war. The play, which takes place entirely in Mama Nadi’s bar (either in the bar proper or in the girls’ rooms), opens with Christian seeking to win Mama, plying her with Belgian chocolates and other niceties. Christian woos and Mama defers; it’s a dance that is clearly not unfamiliar, only this time, with a twist. Christian seeks sanctuary for his sister’s daughter, Sofi, who is “ruined” after systemic sexual abuse by soldiers.
Initially adhering to a hard-line, I’m-running-a-business-here attitude, Mama relents; despite her own life’s travails, which we learn more of by play’s end, her humanity shines through…though she’s no saintly stereotype. She expects her girls to work, ruined or not, and reminds them that “Mama eats first.”
Ruined features a large, 18-member ensemble cast, including James “Djuann” Ray who is first on stage, but never speaks, not with his mouth anyway—Ray plays an African drum, providing a live musical soundtrack to the production that serves to enhance the mood and pace of the show.
Lewis as Mama Nadi achieves a considerable feat in making a woman who has no qualms in foisting a girl who has undergone unfathomable physical and mental abuse on to the lap of one her tormentors, understandable and quite likeable. We are shocked by Mama’s actions, but given her alternatives, respect her decisions. Requer is a fine foil to Lewis’s Mama; she thinks him a fool but he proves himself by play’s end far more wiser and perceptive, especially when it comes to Mama, than she had thought.
Several actors, like Terrell Markus and Del’Vaughn Rooks play multiple roles, including soldiers of both the ruling government and rebel forces—appropriate as even Mama Nadi notes the challenge of knowing the difference given both sides use of terror and depraved violence. Rooks also portrays Fortune, a former farmer now in the service of the sublimely malevolent Commander Osembenga (William Walker) who arrives at Mama’s door looking for his wife, Salima.
The story of Salima and Fortune echo that of other characters in the play, including the haughty Josephine (Dionne Johnson), the one-time “daughter of a chief” who is now reduced to prostitution. Ultimately, Fortune’s desire to reunite with Salima—the wife he once rejected—brings the war home to Mama’s would-be island of neutrality when Cmdr. Osembenga learns that his rebel opposite, Jerome Kisembe (E. Martin Ealy) has visited Mama’s as well.
Richard Peck portrays Mr. Harari, whose character is representative of DRC’s European roots when the Congo was a French colony. When the time comes for Mr. Harari to repay the kindnesses he’s received at Mama Nadi’s door and take Sophie away for a life-changing operation, he ultimately leaves the girl behind, but not before absconding with Mama’s diamond “life insurance policy.”
Director Barry Feinstein deserves considerable credit in orchestrating this production with such a large cast, as numerous actors make their way across the stage with an ebb and flow that so reflects that back and forth struggles portrayed in Nottage’s work—between armies, between friends, between lovers, between enemies.
With the allure of a drum beat, Ruined draws in the audience, just as Nottage intended, hoping to make the Congo crisis something more than dry newspaper reports. As Nottage noted in an interview, “After seeing Ruined, people would say, ‘I’ve read these articles before and I know what’s happening, but now I feel moved to act.’ They feel as though they’ve spent two hours with a living, breathing human being with a story that can no longer be ignored.”