Lynn Nottage’s new play, Ruined (Manhattan Theatre Club, 3/8/09), rewrites Mother Courage and Her Children in the context of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She weaves a story that chills spectators with its violence and moves us with the remnants of compassion evident in even the most hard-boiled of the play’s characters. Mama Nadi (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) presides as the Madame of a bar and brothel isolated in a mining town in the middle of a rainforest, from which rebels and government soldiers roam and return.
Caught in the crossfire of men’s war, Mama Nadi and her girls survive by profiting from the men’s loneliness and their desire, appealing to them with seductive dance moves, sitting on their laps, teasing and cajoling them into parting with their cash and into joining the women in the bar’s back rooms, where higher prices can be charged for more intimate encounters.
Mama Nadi provides music, food, drink (however watered down her whiskey), and the comforts of female flesh to interchangeable batteries of men who arrive from the same forest, their chests adorned with weapons and their foreheads swathed in bandannas, their only distinguishing marks the color and cut of their uniforms. In fact, the warring soldiers in Ruined are played by the same male actors, implying that although their rhetoric is righteous, their brutality and crimes against humanity are equivalent and indistinguishable.
Mama Nadi’s, however, is no peaceful refuge. Only the force of her personality and the sexual pleasures with which she barters keep the soldiers from raping her and her girls and pillaging the small stores on which they survive. The social contract is utterly tenuous here; although the rainforest rows of dense trees comprise the back half of the set, they’re lit (by Peter Kaczorowski) ominously, almost as though they harbor the deliverers of the women’s violent demise. The precarious operation is both haven and hell, its safety and comfort mercurial.
Nottage builds the characters’ fear and tension slowly, delivering information about the setting and the political moment by carefully filling in the outline of her characters’ pasts, presents, and futures. When Christian (Russell Gebert Jones) arrives at the bar, along with the sundries and supplies he brings to sell to Mama Nadi, he offers her two other pieces of merchandise for the price of one. Not until he drags into the bar two dirty, clearly abused young women—Sophie and Salima—do we realize he’s been talking about people, so callus and indifferent appears the bartering between him and Mama.
Mama surveys the two women like a slave auctioneer. Sophie, Christian reveals, even though she’s beautiful, will be no good to Mama’s business because she’s been “ruined”; rebels have raped her with a bayonet and destroyed her genitals. Sophie walks with the ragged, uneven gait of someone who bears the memory of her assault in every move she makes. Despite her lack of value on Mama’s economy, the older woman reluctantly agrees to take Sophie in, along with the less physically broken young woman, Salima.
In between Mama’s tentative embrace of the two damaged women and their eventual losses and redemptions, Nottage demonstrates that Mama has more heart and shrewder politics than it at first appears. Although she treats her girls sternly, her gruff affection for them motivates her actions. Salima, too, has been raped by rebels, and forcibly separated from her husband and her little girl. Nottage unfolds Salima’s story across the play’s two acts, until her pregnancy as a result of rape, and the arrival of her desperate husband, combine to propel her to an unspeakable act that provides one of the play’s several climaxes.
Nottage modulates the play’s tension level, intercutting visits from rebels and government soldiers with more familial scenes of Mama and her girls, trying to establish some sense of a normal life in between the anxious moments with the men, whose brutality and arrogance are interchangeable. Mama and the girls suffer their presence because it puts food in their mouths, but the acts required of them in exchange fray their souls.
Sophie, however, pays her way through Mama’s employ by singing, accompanied by a guitarist and drummer who perform for the theatre’s spectators as much as for the characters in the bar. (Nottage wrote the songs’ lyrics to original music by Dominic Kanza.) Condola Rashad (Phylicia Rashad’s gorgeous young daughter) has a golden, bell-like singing voice that lights up her face. The beauty of that sound, ringing in a place of such spiritual and physical impoverishment, is a lush and heart-rending contradiction. The musical performances also provide a Brechtian element that lets spectators—and the characters—rest from the viciousness of the action, giving us a chance to breath, to think, to contemplate how a sound so beautiful could come from a situation so untenable.
The women focus Nottage’s anti-war plaint. Played by Ekulona, Mama is a powerhouse, whose gestus here, rather than Mother Courage’s fastening her teeth on each coin she earns, is to stuff into her bra the wads of cash she receives from the soldiers, patting at her breasts as they grow heavy with bills. Nestled close to her flesh and her heart, the money appears to go directly to sustenance, as though hidden from the work for which it’s payment. The money might be dirty, but lodged between her breasts, Mama Nadi rechristens it before she exchanges it with Christian for food (and the occasional piece of chocolate over which she’s enraptured).
Nottage emphasizes that the wages of war are visited on the bodies of women who are pawns in battles between men. When Salima stages her tragic protest late in the play, she shouts, “Don’t fight your wars on my body.” Ravaged by assault, these women nonetheless find dignity and strength. Mama, the towering, wily matriarch of this outpost, tells Christian, “I didn’t come as Mama Nadi; I found her here.” She steps into the shoes of a heroine, rising to an occasion not of her own making.
Men have failed these women. Salima’s husband was buying a new pot when the rebel soldiers overran their village and attacked her; she was an arbitrary victim in a war without rules, but her body bears the price. Pregnant, she cries that she’s carrying the “baby child of a monster.” As her husband pleads with Mama to allow him to see Salima, he holds the new pot in his fist, a pitiful symbol of reparations he’s unable to make.
In the play’s world—and in the real world of violence in the Congo Nottage references—raped women are considered damaged, as though the violence inflicted on their bodies is somehow their fault. Caught in such impossible contradictions, the women have nowhere to turn. Women like Mama capitalize on their spoiled flesh.
But Mama draws her empathy from another source. After a critical confrontation between the rebels and the soldiers, in which Christian and the women are caught as potential victims, life settles back into its uneasy rhythms. Christian, who’s trying to recover from alcoholism, and whose status as a merchant has marked him as somewhat less than a man throughout the play, finally articulates his love for Mama.
Suddenly, the play becomes a heterosexual romance, in which Mama and her girls are redeemed by the love of a good man. Before she can accept his affections, the previously stalwart Mama unravels with emotion, and tells Christian the secret that binds her to the women in her employ. The 11th hour confession, which Christian accepts on the way to reintegrating the nuclear family, is the play’s one false note, one that compromises the rigorous, clear-eyed story Ruined otherwise tells.
Would that Nottage had maintained her singular, Brechtian vision of the consequences of war for women to a more bitter end, instead of capitulating to realism’s mandate that narratives resolve with heterosexual marriage that solves everything. The gender politics of the Congo that Ruined describes with such force are compromised by this conservative happy ending
Still, director Kate Whoriskey (who teaches at Princeton) stages a taut, muscular drama filled with compassionate, fierce performances (especially from Ekulona as Mama, Quincy Tyler Bernstine as the doomed Salima, and Cherise Boothe as their hardened colleague, Josephine). Rashad, as Sophie, is the story’s fragile, luminous center, the hope in the women’s despair. She makes Ruined a moving testament to survival.
The Feminist Spectator