Nottage traveled to East Africa in 2004 to interview Congolese women who had fled their war-torn country because she wanted to provide an opportunity for their stories to be heard. They were victims of sexual abuse and torture, often ripped away from their families or shunned by their communities for being damaged, but Nottage was interested in learning who they were besides being victims. She realized that "a war was being fought over the bodies of women," and found the theme for her play in their pain and their hopes for the future.
The Huntington Theatre Company, in a co-production with La Jolla Playhouse and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, maintains its high standards of excellence with Ruined, featuring a stellar cast under the inspired direction of Liesl Tommy. She does a masterful job of varying the pacing to ease or build tension as required. Even with an ensemble of thirteen actors, everyone has a place and purpose in each scene, whether they're dancing, fighting or just hanging out at the bar, and the two musicians (Alvin Terry and Adesoji Odukogbe) blend naturally into the surroundings as their instruments lay down an indigenous soundtrack.
The music (composed and arranged by Aaron Meicht, lyrics by Nottage) is an important component of the play. In Mama Nadi's bar, the soldiers, rebels and miners can relax and let loose, dancing wildly or just listening to the sweet voice of Sophie (Carla Duren). Like the Kit Kat Klub in Cabaret, Mama Nadi's closes its eyes to the outside world and the atrocities beyond the front door. As long as the music plays and the liquor flows, Mama and her girls are reasonably safe. However, their safety is tenuous, dependent upon the winds of war and the whims of the powerful men who frequent the bar.
Jerome Kisembe (Wendell B. Franklin), the angry rebel leader, and Commander Osembenga (Adrian Roberts), fearsome head of the government forces, are two of the powerful men who usually obey the house rule and willingly put aside their bullets to partake of Mama's hospitality. She plays a dangerous game by currying favor with each of them, even as she strives to maintain neutrality and keep her business afloat. Mama (Tonye Patano) depends upon Christian (Oberon K.A. Adjepong), a traveling salesman, for deliveries of cigarettes, chocolates, her coveted lipstick, and the occasional new girl for her brothel. When he arrives with two-for-the-price-of-one, Mama drives a hard bargain before agreeing to let them both stay. She grudgingly accepts Salima (Pascale Armand), the plain girl, and embraces the beautiful 18-year old Sophie, until she learns that she is damaged goods.
Sophie's condition gives the play its name, the euphemistic term for a woman who has been sexually mutilated. However, Nottage applies the word more broadly to incorporate the culture and the entire country. Also, Sophie is far from being the only victim; rather, she is merely the most visible. Each of the women has a horrific back story: Josephine (Zainab Jah), the veteran prostitute, was the daughter of a tribal chief unable to protect her; Salima was abducted from her garden by soldiers and enslaved for five months in the bush, only to be rejected by her community when she finally returned; and Mama, despite her fiery independence, hides her own internal scars.
Other than those in power, the men fare no better in this never-ending fight. Salima's farmer husband Fortune (Jason Bowen) and others like him were conscripted for the army and threatened with being shot if they desert; businessmen like Christian and Mr. Harari (the only character who seems superfluous) struggle to determine who is friend and who is foe, or who is the top dog today. Kisembe and Osembenga boast that they follow the rule of law, but they constantly change the rules in their effort to stay one step ahead of the enemy.
Patano's Mama is the linchpin of Ruined and gives a bravura performance ranging from forceful CEO to mother hen, and ultimately revealing her vulnerability. She has wonderful chemistry with the rest of the cast, but shares a special relationship with Adjepong's Christian as they taunt and tease one another like old friends. Jah plays Josephine as tough and sexy, but also displays her internal wounds. Duren quietly and convincingly exhibits the fear in Sophie's eyes and the pain that she endures with every step, but it is Armand who provides the most heartbreaking portrayal when she relates the story of Salima's abduction and later takes a desperate and unimaginable action that will sear into your consciousness as one of the play's most dramatic moments.
The scenic design by Clint Ramos features an open, airy club with an elevated platform for the musicians stage left and the girls' simple, cluttered quarters stage right. Lap Chi Chu's lighting effectively delineates bright day from night, using purple tones and spotlights when the action in the bar heats up and the camouflage-clad men show off Randy Duncan's energetic choreography. The women wear a colorful array of wraps and head scarves by costume designer Kathleen Geldard.
As is the case with most wars, this one is about economics. The Congo is rich in natural resources, including the ore coltan and other precious metals (now known as "conflict minerals") used to make cell phones and other electronic devices, inviting international interest and financing that fuel the conflict. Although the war officially ended in 2002, the fighting over control of the mines has not, and DRC was recently named the "rape capital of the world" by a UN official. Over 200,000 women have been raped in a country where the consequences for victims are severe, while the perpetrators act with impunity.
What I find most remarkable about Ruined is the hope and resilience it portrays. Each of the characters has witnessed or fallen victim to horrific atrocities, but they survive and, in most cases, are strong or courageous enough to help pull others through, despite the odds against them. Considering that the playwright's creations are based on the stories of real people makes it all the more remarkable. Ruined is an incredible tribute to the human spirit in the face of devastating challenges and a highly intelligent piece of work. Director Tommy et al give it its due at the Huntington.
Ruined, with performances through February 6 at Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or huntingtontheatre.org. The Huntington Theatre Company, a co-production with La Jolla Playhouse and Berkeley Repertory Theatre; Written by Lynn Nottage, Directed by Liesl Tommy, Choreography by Randy Duncan, Scenic Design by Clint Ramos, Costume Design by Kathleen Geldard, Lighting Design by Lap Chi Chu, Original Music/Sound Design/Music Direction by Broken Chord (Daniel Baker and Aaron Meicht), Production Stage Manager Anjee Nero, Stage Manager Leslie Sears
Cast (in order of appearance): Tonye Patano, Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Carla Duren, Pascale Armand, Zainab Jah, Alvin Terry, Adesoji Odukogbe, Wendell B. Franklin, Joseph Kamal, Adrian Roberts, Jason Bowen, Okieriete Onaodowan, Kola Ogundiran