‘Ruined’ an evocative story of rape and war
By Cynthia Citron
LOS ANGELES –It’s difficult to imagine that a play based on atrocities committed during two decades of civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo could be construed as an entertaining evening in the theater. Oddly enough, though, it is.
The play s called Ruined and it is currently on stage at the Geffen Playhouse. Written by the prolific Lynn Nottage, it is a compendium of war stories that she and director Kate Whoriskey collected in Africa from women who had been raped and tortured during the war. This was a war, you may remember, that used rape as a weapon against women and children. It is also a war that left more than five million people dead.
Nottage, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as countless other major awards for this play, has brought nearly all the original New York cast to Los Angeles for this production. And they are so extraordinary that you will be hard-pressed to believe that they didn’t come directly from Congo itself.
The setting (colorfully designed by Derek McLane) is a bar cum brothel presided over by the aggressively independent Mama Nadi (played to perfection by Portia). Her “girls” are the “ruined” women of Congo, shunned by their families and communities after having been raped by marauding soldiers.
They include the beautiful but crippled Sophie (Condola Rashad), Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), pining for her soldier-husband and her baby, and Jill-of-all-trades Josephine (Cherise Boothe) who bumps and grinds even while she serves beer.
Their “customers” include Mr. Harari (Tom Mardirosian), a local white man who has taken a shine to Josephine, but is constantly in turmoil trying to appease both the government soldiers and the fierce renegades who frequent Mama Nadi’s bar.
And finally, there is the traveling businessman (Russell G. Jones) who supplies the goods for the bar as well as the brothel. He provides the voice of reason, bringing news of the progress of the war and trying to persuade Mama Nadi to abandon her business and escape before the fighting catches up with her. He also provides comic relief as he needles Mama Nadi and cowers before both factions of soldiers who come to partake of the liquor and the girls.
Mama Nadi, always optimistic, keeps aloof from the war and welcomes soldiers from both sides of the conflict. And here it gets a bit confusing, since the politics of the war are never discussed, and as the “winning side” keeps switching back and forth, it’s hard to figure out which side you’re supposed to root for. My guess is that Nottage’s message is actually “a plague on both your houses.”
A plethora of interesting costumes are provided by designer Paul Tazewell, and the cheerful dances are well choreographed by Warren Adams. A small band of musicians plays drums and guitar to original music by Dominic Kanza, with lyrics by playwright Nottage, and a fine background of sounds is provided by Rob Milburn.
The most striking element in Ruined, however, is the impeccable West African accents consistently delivered by every member of the cast. They are so authentic that they sometimes undermine the action because they are unfamiliar, and often incomprehensible, to the American ear. The message was certainly clear, but the words themselves sometimes got lost in delivery.
Nevertheless, Ruined is a tour de force for the entire acting ensemble, as well as an outstanding triumph for playwright Nottage and director Whoriskey. It tells an important story most of us know little about, and everyone ought to see it. It’s a heavy story told with a relatively light touch and a lot of hope.
Ruined, a cooperative production of the Geffen Playhouse and Seattle’s Intiman Theatre, will continue at the Geffen, 10886 LeConte Avenue, in Westwood, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7 through October 17th. Call (310) 208-5454 for reservations.
Citron is Los Angeles bureau chief for San Diego Jewish World