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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

She's ruined!— Christian of Sophie

(Photo: )
The hideous stories in Lynn Nottage's play, now at the Geffen, and the ravaging soldiers in the smalltown Congo whorehouse where it's set would seem to cast a bleak pall over the production. Not so! The vitality of Mama Nadi (Portia), who runs the house, the poetry of Christian, peddler and professor (Russell G. Jones), the courage of the girls and the laughter that bubbles up despite the life redeem it.

Based on true stories elicited by Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey on their research trip to Uganda, the play won the Pulitzer last year. Although Mama Nadi and Christian carry the play, two of the most poignant characters are pretty crippled Sophie (Condola Rashad) and plain small Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine). The two appear, hand in hand, up for sale by Christian and almost rejected by Mama Nadi because Sophie is "ruined." Christian talks her into it and she finally accedes, because of Sophie's singing voice and obvious smarts. Mama is less impressed by her high marks than her mathematical ability. Josephine (Cherise Boothe), the old hand, is an apt dancer and flies into a jealous rage at the new girls. "My father was a chief!" she cries until Mama Nadi cuts her down to size.

After all their sufferings, the cruelest cut of all comes from the families and loved ones who totally reject the girls and throw them out. They're represented by Fortune (Carl Cofield), the young farmer who married Salima, cast her out and then returns begging for another chance. He's rejected in turn and his act of revenge brings pain and suffering to Mama Nadi's brothel. The rebels and the soldiers range through the scene taking the indifferent women whose politics are dictated by the color of their money.

Portia plays Mama Nadi as shrewd and manipulative whose loud laugh and wiles dominate the stage. The pedlar Christian (Jones) who is also a poet sees through her colorful façade, just as poetry is his. Sophie (Rashad), whose beauty is frozen by what the men with machetes did to her, carries an icy demeanor which is only softened by the girl Salima (Bernstine).

Salima's tragedy, told in a fraught monologue, is the more telling for its understated delivery and compounded in the end by an unsought pregnancy. Mr. Harari (Tom Mardirosian), a white diamond dealer with a purpose but Mama uses him for her own ends. Harari has a weary corruptness which makes his face a statement.

Colored by the music with lyrics by Nottage and score by Dominic Kanza, the play has a coarse vibrancy. The dim lighting by Peter Kaczorowski lends the ambiance of a place where night is, ominously, just about to fall.

This is Nottage's best play to date and given its Pulitzer Prize it will undoubtedly have many other productions by distinguished companies like the Geffen. It has already crossed the pond to London where Curtainup's London critic reviewed it (review). The characters are believable and human and the language is rich in lyricism. Some of the speeches are a little florid, though it's hard to tell whether this is Congolese or Nottage. In any case, all is forgiven in this play which steps outside the everyday world into a pageantry of pain, evil and a glimmer of harsh spiraling laughter.

To read Elyse Sommer's review when Ruined premiered n in New York and she predicted that it would win the Pulitzer, go here.

Written by Lynn Nottage
Director: Kate Whoriskey
Cast: Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), Josephine (Cherise Boothe), Jerome Kisembe/Soldier (Tongayi Chirisa), Fortune/Soldier/Miner (Carl Cofield), Christian (Russell G. Jones), Guitarist (Simon Shabantu Kashama), Mr. Hatari (Tom Mardirosian), Pascal, the Drummer/Soldier (Ron McBee), Mama Nadi (Portia), Sophie (Condola Rashad), Commander Osembenga/Soldier (David St. Louis). Simon/Soldier/Miner/Aid Worker (Stephen Tyrone Williams).
Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Design & Music Direction: Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen
Original Music: Dominic Kanza
Lyrics: Lynn Nottage
Choreography: Warren Adams
Dialect Coach: Judith Shahn
Fight Choreography: Geoffrey Alm
Production Stage Manager: Mary K Klinger
Running Time: Two and a half hours, one intermission
Running Dates: Sept. 15-29, 2010
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. Reservations: 310-208-5454.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on September 18.
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