I am hugely enamored of the work of playwright and 2007 MacArthur Fellow, Lynn Nottage. From laughing heartily and feeling the first flush of love with a date at her Fabulation, or the Education of Undine, to obsessing over costuming her beautiful, Pulitzer-nominated, turn-of-the-century play, Intimate Apparel, many wonderful moments of the past few years have been punctuated by the enjoyment of her work.
Last Thursday was another such moment when I took in a performance of her latest staged play. In 2005, Ms. Nottage, who feels a “social responsibility” to give voice to the voiceless, traveled with her husband, filmmaker Tony Gerber and the director with whom she is most closely aligned, Kate Whoriskey, to Uganda (more stable than the neighboring embattled Democratic Republic of Congo) to speak with Congolese refugee women and gather their stories. The resulting Mother Courage and her Children-influenced piece is the powerful Ruined, on stage at the Manhattan Theatre Club through May 2, 2009.
Set in the recent past in a small mining town in the Ituri Rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo (props to the scenic and sound designers), Ruined introduces us to Mama Nadi, proprietor of a bar/brothel that keeps the local miners and soldiers lusts for Primus beer and paid sex sated and ironically the women whose bodies are offered for consumption, safe. For food and shelter in a weapon-free zone (patrons are asked to remove their bullets before entering Mama’s doors) the women provide housekeeping duties and sexual favors– always with condoms. An odd bit of safe haven in a region where women are often brutally ravaged in unprotected, non-consensual sex in great numbers and left “ruined” thus shamed and unwelcome in their villages.
Saidah Arrika Ekulona’s turn as the Brechtian entrepreneur Mama Nadi is flawless. Though Mama’s livelihood depends on the spoils of desperation and devastation, she unapologetically views prostitution as an act of defiance rather than defilement, a choice. Josephine, as portrayed by the lithe Cherise Boothe, is the proud daughter of a village chief whose excommunication has brought her into Mama’s fold, her gift of dance used as enticement, a weary-feistyness that keeps her (like Intimate Apparel’s 1905 prostitute, Mayme) moving toward something more. Russell G. Jones, nuanced as the sensitive Christian, brings the violated girls, Salima and Sophie and ultimately, love to Mama’s insular world.
Quincy Tyler Bernstine’s poignant portrayal of the tragic Salima, “You will not fight your battles on my body anymore,” brings tears to the eyes. We actually feel for Chike Johnson when he, as Fortune realizes the err of his ways and seeks redemption and reunion with his wife. Christian’s “ruined” niece Sophie cannot be offered as a prostitute, so she earns her keep in song, performing at the bar. With her large, expressive eyes and clear, beautiful voice, Condola Rashad shows us the spirited hopefulness that remains with Sophie in spite of the constant pain that wracks her abused body.
There are moments of wrenching gravity and yet the play is rife with humor. As in life, there is the mercy of levity, momentary reprieve that along with hope allow us to move through the now with the belief in a better tomorrow.
Here, the playwright Lynn Nottage and actor, Saidah Arrika Ekulona discuss Ruined with WNYC New York Public Radio.
Condola Rashad on the promotional poster.
I have to admit that I was taken aback by the fact that the little being, the reason for belly bump camouflaging on The Cosby Show, (as Clair Huxtable, Phylicia Rashad’s real-life pregnancy was hidden behind props) was performing beautifully before me, a grown woman. Fugit hora.