Ruined

  • Date:
    February 1, 2009
    Review by:
    Tulis McCall

    A Review by Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus.

    Having been bombarded by the news media with images of African atrocities in Darfur, Mogadishu, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone and South Africa over the past several years, you'd think we'd be inured by now to the horrors. But "Ruined" proves we can never get used to the awful things men do to women in wartime.

    It has taken five years for Lynn Nottage, who wrote the exquisite "Intimate Apparel" in 2004, to bring us another powerful play, this one a graphic depiction of the misery in the Democratic Republic of Congo after its liberation from Belgium. Congo is a country in which you don�t know who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, and do you play both sides to make sure you survive.

    Set in a remote corner of a mining town in the Ituri Rainforest, Mama Nadi's establishment seems truly to be the last safe haven in this war-ravaged country. A true survivor herself, Mama (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) takes in damaged women, gives them food, clothing and shelter, and in return, demands they satisfy the soldiers, miners, and salesmen who stop by for drink and debauchery.

    Moments of compassion are not rare with this shrewd businesswoman, but they are more often hidden under a tough exterior that keeps her sane and provides a wall that separates her from the men that come to her bar cum whorehouse. The question of whether or not she is contributing to the women's plight is left for us to judge.

    Sophie (Condola Rashad) is more physically damaged than the other women and limps with obvious pain, but she's a beautiful girl who in another time would be destined for university life. So she sings for her supper and helps Mama count her profits. The other women are uncharacteristically protective of this tortured soul, and while they sometimes appear to resent her special treatment, they know she's one of them.

    Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), who was dropped off at Mama's along with Sophie when there was nowhere else for them to go, is representative of the women who are now telling their stories so we all pay attention. One day, she says, she's picking sweet tomatoes in her own garden, and the next she's taken by force, and tortured and gang-raped for five months. Left for dead in the Bush, she manages to get back to her village only to be discarded by her husband for dishonoring him.

    Though hard to watch at times, "Ruined" is a riveting play, and the actors leave us gasping. The very beautiful Rashad is making her New York debut and casting directors are bound to put her on their short list of new faces, while the more experienced Bernstine gives Salima the quirkiness and depth of character that makes her tragedy gut-wrenching.

    Saidah Arrika Ekulona, in an explosive performance, embodies the moral contradiction implicit in having abused women work as whores, forcing us to open our eyes to the realities of their lives as Mama opens her arms.

    For the love part, there's the goofy and tender performance of Russell Gebert Jones. His Christian, the poet-salesmen who keeps coming back to Mama in the hopes of breaking down her defenses, won't take no for an answer. Though ugliness surrounds him, he always manages to bring beauty to that hellhole each time he enters with a new box of Belgian chocolates.

    "Ruined" is the story of silent sufferers, but Nottage tells it with the ultimate belief in the survival of the human spirit that makes it possible for these women to transcend the abominations and embrace life. Love is still a binding force amidst all the hate, violence, and distrust, and we leave the theater with a new awareness, and hope that tides are turning and women again can simply plant tomatoes in their own gardens.

     

    A Review by Tulis McCall.

    I was going to write about this, but I attended a performance in February just when I was looking for a new apartment and moving a business. So it got lost in the wash. I have just discovered that the play has been extended to May 3, so may I be the fourth or fifth person to tell you go see, go see.

    I have heard several other people discussing this production, and the conversation always includes this: �You don�t see the violence.� True. And are we fortunate or spoiled by the fact that we live in the suburb of the world where we can choose our violence quota on most days? Mama Nadi (Arrika Ekulona) lives in Democratic Republic of Congo. She lives in the middle land, where miners and soldiers of opposing sides alternately confront, avoid and escape one another. In the middle of this Mama Nadi has staked her claim on a small piece of land where she runs a bar and a brothel. Unlike Mother Courage, she does not travel. She stays put and watches the war come to her.

    I was reminded of a quote that I heard years ago �Men prepare for the order of war; women prepare for the disorder. We white folk in the West have words to throw at war�s disorders: Gassed; Shell Shock; Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Mama Nadi and the women of her world have another: Ruined.

    In this play we never find out exactly what �Ruined� is, probably because it comes in so many varieties. It is the result of men sexually abusing women in any way they can imagine, and no doubt in ways that surprise even them in the moment of execution. The result is blunt: when a woman is ruined, she is in constant pain and unable to have normal sexual relations � because everything has been ruined.

    As the theatergoer said to her friend, you don�t see the violence. What you do see and hear, however, makes you sigh and gasp. We white folk are not demonstrative in the theatre by and large. Must be all that Puritan influence that taught us to be q-u-i-e-t in a public assembly. So believe me when I tell you that the sighing that goes on in this audience of mostly white people ain�t the norm. But when we watch Ruined we have no control over our reactions. When we see what these women must do to survive and hear what they have lived through already, we physically react. As well as listening to the women, we watch a small cadre of men play all sides of the men�s story. These few actors assume the roles of the ruling army, the resistance and the miners caught between the two. Initially a confusing affect, it begins to make sense as we, like the women in Mama Nadi�s bar begin to see most of the men as bearers of trouble � it�s just the degree that has to be determined.

    This is a brave play in a season of placid offerings, though it is not a silky smooth landing. The performances are uneven, and the play borders on being a moral tale, which dilutes its power. Still, it is an high honorable offering in the temple. Ms. Nottage has found a way to tell us a horrible truth spoonful by spoonful. She makes the unbearable watchable and turns us into witnesses. This is a play that will stay with you long after you leave the theatre and what happens to women �over there� will no longer be quite so far away.

     

    What the press had to say.....

    "a comfortable, old-fashioned drama about an uncomfortable of-the-moment subject."
    Ben Brantley
    New York Times

    "stirring and sometimes startling new work"
    Joe Dziemianowicz
    New York Daily News

    "The play does ramble at times and would benefit from a tightening of its two-hour-and-45-minute running time. But the deeply moving ending, which somehow manages to convey hopefulness amid the despair, more than compensates.
    Frank Scheck
    New York Post

    "Nottage is a sentimentalist and her play�s pat ending betrays the tougher spirit of the harrowing earlier parts. Until then, a superb ensemble under Kate Whoriskey�s energetic yet sensitive direction creates some of the most memorable characters you�ll see anywhere this season."
    Jeremy Gerard
    Bloomberg

    "Beautiful, hideous and unpretentiously important play"
    Linda Winner
    NewsDay

    "a crackling thriller, with humor, plot twists and lots of humanity."
    David Cote
    NY1

    "Rarely does a play take you to a corner of the world you hardly ever think about and force you to care fiercely for the people in it."
    David Sheward
    Back Stage

    "The real achievement of "Ruined," Lynn Nottage's powerful new drama, is that it gives a heartbreakingly human face to monumental tragedy."
    Michael Kuchwara
    Associated Press

    "emotionally scorching new play" & "What's more surprising is the exquisite balance the playwright brings -- of brutality and poetry, hope and even humor."
    David Rooney
    Variety