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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Postscript: The play won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama!
The play's power is not easily captured in a quick summary. Forty-ish Mama Nadi (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) owns a bar and poolroom staffed by waitresses who provide more than whiskey and food. It's located in a mining town, where cellphones have made tin a valuuable natural resource that has escalated rather than alleviated brutal power struggles between various factions. Fierce survivor and opportunist that she is, Mama Nadi manages to cater not just to the miners, but to soldiers of whichever faction fighting for territorial control enters her premises. While she's out to please her customers, her interest in men is strictly pragmatic. Her determined political impartiality and strict rule about guns being emptied by all who enter her little kingdom, has enabled her to control what goes on within her enterprise, if not what happens beyond its front door.
It's clear from the start, that Mama will no more be able to stay neutral forever, than she can remain emotionally uninvolved with the damaged girls who work for her because they have nowhere else to go — especially Sophie (Condola Rashad) who is the latest girl Christian (Russell Gebert Jones), a traveling salesman, her friend, would-be lover and supplier of chocolates and valuable goods, has persuaded Mama to take in. Sophie, who's Christian's niece, is actually offered up as a two-fer with Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine). Both girls have been rejected by their families as damaged good, but Sophie is a victim not just of rape but mutilation, which gives her the bad luck status of a ruined girl.
While a heart does indeed beat beneath Mama Nadi's tough exterior, she is not a Congolese version of the cliched whore or madam with a heart of gold. Like Bertold Brecht's Mother Courage, Mama is not above profiting from the war and brutality raging outside her door (Nottage saw the seemingly endless African conflict as a situation calling for a modern day take on that play). However, this is not an adaptation of Brecht's famous treatise about wartime survival and profiteering, but a completely original, beautifully written work that manages to be as suspenseful and entertaining as it is at times harrowing to watch. Mama Nadi is a complex, one-of-a-kind character, which is also true for the three women working in her bordello who are visible, as well as the men who come to the bar.
While Ruined is polemical in its intent to call wider attention to a world where women's bodies have become the battle ground, with rape and other horrendous abuses the weapon used to destroy families and entire villages, Nottage and Kate Whoriskey, who also directed the playwright's Fabulations, have not resorted to agiprop theater. The cast has been carefully chosen to bring the characters to vigorously meaningful life. Saidah Arrika Ekulona, who was a secondary character in Fabulations (also in Lisa Krohn's Well) proves herself to be more than worthy of this starring role. Her Mama Nadi is sassy, smart and, yes, vulnerable. Condola Rashad, Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Cherise Boothe masterfully individualize Sophie, Salima and Josephine. Russell Gebert Jones's Christian is, like Mama, a shrewd survivor whose suits may be worn, but whose humanity remains intact.
The escalation of danger and fear prompted by the latest turn the civil war has taken in the area where the play unfolds is conveyed from the very beginning, when Christian arrives with Sophie and Salima in tow. Menace overhangs life in the bar, and intensifies every time customers arrive, whether miners, rebel soldiers like Jerome Kisembe (Chris Chalk), or the scary Commander Osembenga (Kevin Mambo). These men, as well as the only white character, a diamond dealer named Mr. Harari (a rare and welcome turn by Tom Mardirosian) who has a special hankering for Josephine, are reminiscent of old Graham Greene movie thrillers like The Comedians.
The staging is colorful and bright, with some terrific and apt musical interludes and song lyrics written by Nottage. The music, as well as humor, provide some necessary relief from the edge-of-the-seat tension and suspense. Yes, you know that something awful is going to happen, but you don't know when and what. (This is the first play I've seen in a while where I couldn't see the ending coming a mile off). When Ruined's hints of trouble finally do explode, you're left shocked and drained.
Some people may complain that Nottage cops out with a too soft ending. However, it's by no means a tacked-on finale, but arrives with plenty of advance interchanges to make it believable. Above all, it reinforces the playwright's awareness that this is theater and not a lecture. Ruined could and should be a conscienceness raiser, but rest assured that this is above all a genuinely gripping theatrical experience.
Whether Ruined wins any big prizes or not, it has my vote as a play that confirms live theater's ability to enlighten and enrich. Give up the pre-theater dinner if your pocket book is hurting, but don't miss seeing it.
Links to Other Lynn Nottage Plays Reviewed at Curtainup
Mud, River, Stone -- 1997. This early play was also set in Africa, but it was too melodramatic to be convincing and thoroughly satisfying.
Intimate Apparel and Fabulation or The Re-Education of Undine , both plays opened Off-Broadway in 2004 and are bookends of the American experience— the first going back in time to Nottage's grandmother's story, the second, moving the African-American woman's experience to the present. Could an August Wilson type generation by generation saga of the African-American experience (with a focus on women) be in the offing?