Women’s Fate in War: RUINED at Everyman

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Women’s Fate in War: RUINED at Everyman

Ruined

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com February 9, 2015

The moral imperatives of life in a war zone are different. That was the message Bertolt Brecht taught in Mother Courage, and the message Lynn Nottage reiterates with Ruined, her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning play inspired by Brecht’s. In each play, a woman determined to survive a war confronts the need to be as nihilistic as the war itself. Nottage’s heroine, Mama Nadi, portrayed in the current Everyman Theatre revival byDawn Ursula, is less willing than Brecht’s heroine to let the imperative of survival trump all the others all the time, but she is far too disciplined to let her more humane impulses show except in small flashes.

As far as her public persona is concerned, Mama Nadi, proprietress of a bar in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is all about business, impartially selling drink and the companionship of her stable of prostitutes to government soldiers and rebel fighters alike. The war, largely over an ore called coltan (vital to cellphones, perhaps 10% of the world’s supply coming from the Congo) and conflict diamonds, is a brutal business led by brutal men. The men, when they erupt into the bar, are dangerous as wild animals. They stomp around with AK-47s slung from their shoulders, fire pistols at the ceiling, and regard rape as an entitlement.

Nor are the non-military Congolese much more reliable. As we learn through the tales of two of Mama Nadi’s girls, Salima (Monique Ingram) and Sophie (Zurin Villanueva), being raped and abused, a universal experience of women in modern war, cuts you off from the communities and families from whence you came, the very people that should be supporting you when horrible things happen. In such a world, empathy can amount to fatal weakness, and so Mama Nadi is quite sparing with it.

Instead, Nadi weaves a virtuoso performance, wheeling, dealing, commanding, and charming all around her most of the time, in order to keep herself and her girls as safe as she can, which is not always very much. It is a virtuoso part, and Dawn Ursula, a regular member of the Everyman troupe, does marvels with it, waving, gesticulating, stuttering with the overwhelming flow of her thoughts, capable of cutting coldness, flirtatiousness on demand, and of both wheedling venality and generosity.

But there is much more to the play than Mama’s turn as a sort of Auntie Mame-of-the-Ituri-rainforest. It is also the unflinching story of how, in the words of Salima, men wage war “on [women’s] bodies.” Rape is not simply “what soldiers do,” to quote scholar Mary Louise Roberts’ recent book on the sexual behavior of World War II GIs in Normandy; particularly in contemporary warfare it is a form of combat, aimed at destroying societies. The scene in Act Two where Salima describes what happened to her is not only uncomfortable, it is a display of raw theatrical power and a tutorial about the mechanics of social destruction in the wake of rape.

Then, too, there is some careful attention paid to the men, including the ironically-named Fortune (Bueka Uwemedimo), a man destroyed by the rape of his wife, though he does not fully know it yet, and two mercantile survivors, a salesman named Christian (Jason B. McIntosh), who, despite the fact that he is among other things a procurer for Mama, is probably the most decent, if weak, individual in the play, and the more amoral dealer in war-wares, Harari (Bruce Randolph Nelson). Finally, and powerfully, there are an ensemble of strutting, violent soldiers. Nottage does not try as hard to anatomize them or understand them, and perhaps has less to say about them than about her other characters, but they dominate the action whenever they come onstage. And perhaps we have seen their like so often in other dramas and films (the casually homicidal General Butt-Fucking-Naked in The Book of Mormon is a perfect recent example), we need less introduction.

If my description has you thinking that this is one overstuffed play, I may have misled you. Nottage has much to say and much to show, but she keeps it under control. Despite the play’s length and its large cast, it does not sprawl. It holds the attention as a single narrative from beginning to end.

This production would hold the attention a bit more, though, if the company’s English were not so heavily-accented, a frequently impenetrable mix of Sub-Saharan lilt and French accent. If Congolese actually spoke this way, it might be more understandable, but the official language and the lingua franca of the Congo (among over a hundred tongues) is French. Absent presenting the play in French, however, it would seem a more justified choice to have everyone talking English normally, or perhaps with a slight African lilt. This would have kept the experience of watching the production from becoming an incessant struggle to make sense of what one was hearing. (Basically, I just gave up on the songs sung by Sophie, of which I could distinguish perhaps one word in ten.) And this isn’t just the experience of one guy with old ears; others around me confirmed they couldn’t understand either. It’s a tribute to Nottage’s power as a dramatist that we all kept paying attention anyway.

Basically, this was the play of the year in 2009. In addition to the aforementioned Pulitzer, it won the Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel, Outer Circle, and Obie Awards. It deserved all that hardware. And, diction issues aside, this staging is a beautiful job. Go see it.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Stan Barouh.

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