By Lucy Komisar
Lynn Nottage’s tense, intense thriller about the horrors of rape in the Congo is guaranteed to leave a knot in your stomach. If you’ve avoided reading the newspaper stories, you can catch up right here. The play aspires to be a modern version of Brecht’s Mother Courage. Plus §a change, plus c’est la mªme chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The French, which is sprinkled through the play, is appropriate, as this play takes place in the former Zaire, which was the former Belgian Congo and is now the misnamed Democratic Republic of the Congo.
I visited Zaire in 1990, and it was no picnic then. I had gone to Lubumbashi, the second city, to write about the democratic opposition to the U.S.-supported dictator Mobutu and was followed by government agents. Fortunately, the staff at my hotel told a local tribal chief who informed me of the tail. I contacted the U.S. consul, and he provided a car to take me to my appointments and then drive me onto the tarmac to the plane that would take me away from the local goons. (See My Friend in Lubumbashi, The Washington Post, Jan 2, 1996.)
Things got much worse after Mobutu died, and civil conflict, exacerbated by the war that started in Rwanda, transformed the region into a killing field.
Nottage’s version of Mother Courage turns her into Mama Nadi (portrayed by the excellent earthy Saidah Arrika Ekulona), the proprietor of a bordello in a small mining town. It is situated on one of the roads along which marauding government soldiers and rebels vie with each other and terrorize the local inhabitants. Nottage crafted the play from interviews she did with women in the area.
Mama Nadi is tough and cynical, figuring to survive by living off the cash of
soldiers and miners, providing beer and prostitutes to whichever of the fighters or coltan diggers shows up. (Just in case you thought this has nothing to do with you, tantalum from coltan is used in consumer electronics products such as cell phones, DVD players, and computers. Exports of coltan from the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo to European and American markets help finance the civil war there.)
The bordello is appropriately tacky, with strings of red, yellow and green hanging lights, two bridge tables covered in bright plastic, a pool table, and a bar with peeling paint. It is back-dropped by a wall of tall palms. (The set is by Derek McLane.)
The story focuses on the victims of rape by the soldiers on both sides. Christian (Russell Gebert Jones), who Mama calls professor, is a salesman who purveys wares as various as Belgian chocolates and condoms. On one occasion, he also brings two young women rejected by their families and villages because they have been raped. Young Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) was tied to a tree for five months by rebels who used her sexually when she wasn’t being their servant. Bernstine is vivid, reminding us how she represents everywoman, when she talks about her infant Beatrice.
Sophie (Condola Rashad), Christian’s 18-year-old niece, was treated so brutally that she was ruined, meaning her vagina was ripped. She walks gingerly, with a bit of a limp. Rashad plays her with warmth mixed with timidity.
They both embody a girlish innocence that hasn’t been destroyed by their attackers. However, Josephine (Cherise Boothe), a young woman of their age, has been at the bordello a while and has bought into the life. Boothe moves with the saucy toughness of Mama. She hopes a white customer, a gem and minerals trader, will set her up in the capital.
Mama Nadi appears to have little sympathy for the women, telling them they ought to be happy to have food and shelter. And she abuses the mild poetry-quoting Christian with insults when he courts her. She’s a businesswoman making money. Her goal is to survive, she declares. There’s no place for sentimentality.
But the shooting war is moving into their region. Director Kate Whoriskey creates the tension of a thriller. The bordello is visited by the fiery Jerome Kisembe (Chris Chalk) leader of the rebel militia, accompanied by his men in red berets, and by the tough unsmiling Commander Osembenga (Kevin Mambo), head of the government forces, who arrives with troops in green fatigues. Both actors and their men portray their roles with filmic verisimilitude.
Kisembe rails against the government: They bring soldiers from Uganda, drive us farmers from the land. Osembenga touts democracy, but sets fires to villages believed to harbor militia. The women are inevitably caught in the crossfire.
The most mysterious figure in the play is Mama Nadi. Is she as cynical and heartless as she seems? Does she care anything about the women she takes to work in her bordello? Or is this just about money? The answer is supplied in a finish that’s staged and acted as if this were a slightly hokey soap opera. Aside from that, the play is gripping, and something Brecht would have appreciated.
Ruined. Written by Lynn Nottage, Directed by Kate Whoriskey. Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 West 55th Street, New York. 212-581-1212. Opened February 10, 2009, Closes September 6, 2009. Reviewed by Lucy Komisar Feb 21, 2009. http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/current-season/ruined/index.htm.