RUINED: Congolese Diamonds in a Rough (a play review)

“The door never closes at Mama’s Place.”

Despite the sirens of gunfire and bloodshed taking place in the rainforest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, patrons retreat to Mama’s Place, where they can escape the war, and “Leave behind whatever mess they made out there.”

“Ruined,” the Pulitzer Prize winning play, written by Lynn Nottage, and directed by Kate Whoriskey is a spellbinding drama that portrays wartime atrocities through the intimate lens of survivors. The play, which opened at Chicago’s Goodman Theater last fall, is now playing at the Manhattan Theater Club.

The play opens as Christian (Russell G. Jones), a traveling salesman, appears in Mama Nadi’s (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) bar. He’s bearing the goods that she’s pre-ordered, but he soon tries to sell her something she’s not interested in. “I’ll give you two for one,” he utters in a desperate plea. He goes to his truck and returns with two women, both draped in rags and clenching each other’s hand. Christian begs Mama to take in the young rape survivors. Mama is reluctant, proclaiming that she doesn’t need to feed another plain looking girl, Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), or Sophie (Condola Rashad), who is pretty, but sure to bring bad luck as she is cast as “ruined,” due to genital mutilation from being raped with a bayonet.

Christian convinces Mama that Sophie: is literate, cooks, cleans, sings like an angel, and more importantly, is his niece. Mama finally concedes, realizing she could utilize Sophie as her bookkeeper and bar singer. But the audience soon learns that Mama Nadi isn’t running a shelter. Her cozy bar dispenses more than whiskey and cold beer; she’s running a brothel.

For the African women in the play, prostituting is far safer than walking alone through the war stricken Congo, scrounging for food and shelter, and worst: risking rape at the brutal hands of rebel soldiers. The riveting play captivates the audience as it vividly portrays the pain, struggle, and courage of three women ripped from their lives, and consentingly turned into prostitutes, as the only means of survival in a tumultuous civil war.

Sophie’s sad wondering eyes and permanent visible limp serve as a constant reminder of the mental, emotional and physical torture inflicted by a gang of men who ferociously raped her and left her to die. Sophie isn’t even viable as a prostitute; instead, she uses her melodic voice to seduce patrons into forgetting about the war and indulging in a drink and a woman. The soft-spoken Salima longs to return to her daughter, and moves through the bar robotically as if her soul remains in the hands of the soldiers that chained her to a tree and repeatedly raped her for five months. And, Josephine (Cherise Boothe), the proud daughter of a chief, refuses to realize her status has dissipated as she systematically uses her shapely body and explosive gyrating to seduce coal miners and rebels into dishing out cash to be with her.

The main character, Mama, is (on the exterior) a nonchalant businesswoman who eats before the women she houses. And she welcomes both soldiers and rebels, acknowledging that you can’t take sides in a war. Trying to keep the war outside of her establishment, Mama has one rule; the men must unload their guns and leave the bullets at the bar. While Mama tries to remain detached and profit centered, Ekulona does an exceptional job portraying a multi-layered character with compassion and motherly affection for her property (especially Sophie.) Throughout the play, Mama Nadi’s tenderness is slowly revealed, making it hard for the audience to dismiss her as a mere money hungry madam. We can see her struggle for survival.

The play is emotionally charged throughout, yet incorporates bouts of joy. However, the climax comes as the play’s second act renders pulsating dialogue between Salima and Sophie. Salima tells Sophie she wants to go home, but Sophie argues that she should be smart, “There is a war going on… it is better this way.” Salima accuses the “ruined” Sophie of having the simple job of singing, singing almost happily, so sweet as if she is a bird that can fly away. “You don’t have to be with them,” Salima pronounces. “Sometimes their hands are so full of rage that it hurts to be touched.”

With a soft-spoken steady counterblast, Sophie says, “When I am singing, I am praying that one day the pain will be gone. But what those men did to me lives inside of my body.” Her eyes glossing over, she continues, “Every step I take I feel them inside of me. Punishing me.” Clasping her hands to indicate finality, she ends, “And it will be that way for the rest of my life.” As the audience is jolted into silence, Salima takes the scene and delivers a gut-wrenching monologue depicting the day of her abduction and rape.

The play’s content is stellar and really shows that Nottage did her research (she interviewed women survivors in the Congo). And the impeccable stage set by designer Derek McLane does a marvelous job of portraying a bright yet cozy bar and recreating the Ituri rain forest, while Peter Kaczorowski critical lighting effects take the play off the stage. Paul Tazewell’s costume selection and Dominic Kanza’s explosive soukous music transports the audience out of New York and onto foreign terrain.

Albeit brilliantly written and evocatively directed, “Ruined,” is not flawless. Some scenes are not thoroughly fleshed out and leave the audience with squinted eyes, questioning if the scene was executed realistically. But, Nottage has every right to leave her audience with a glimmer of hope. In the end, the poignant subject matter rips at our consciousness, and the cast does a phenomenal job of placing the unfathomable in our backyard.

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