Ruined by Lynn Nottage, and directed by Seret Scott. Playing at the Ricketson Theater through April 30 at the DCPA.
This 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning drama has been a much-anticipated production and it does not disappoint.
Set in a brothel on the outskirts of a mining camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nottage’s script tackles the human challenges of social chaos rather than the political forces that have reduced a country to anarchy. The same brutish men play multiple roles as miners, militia, rebels, mercenaries and soldiers. The message is clear: they are interchangeable. Mama Nadi, in a tightly wound performance from Kim Staunton, uses her commercial enterprise as a home where she shelters her ten girls from the surrounding culture of rampant rape. This can only be achieved by offering personal services to all comers. Bullets are checked at the bar, and disputes taken outside. After closing sporadic gunfire punctuates the night.
Harvy Blanks turns in another gripping performance as Christian, the sometime suitor and smarmy traveling salesman who supplies Mama with lipstick, Belgian chocolates and other luxuries for her workforce. He also dumps his niece with her, a girl who has been “ruined,” so physically damaged from gang rapes that she is physically unable to work the mattresses. Sophie was an aspiring college student who can read, keep the books and sing with the band. She becomes Mama’s girl Friday. But it becomes clear that all of Mama’s girls are ruined in a tribal system where the victims of rape are blamed for their shame. Husbands throw out their wives, and families shun their daughters. Only Mama will provide them with a meal and relative safety.
But the danger from their customers is palpable each evening. Full of rage, haunted by their murderous days, the men who seek out a few hours of relaxation at Mama’s brim over with barely contained violence. There are no “good guys,” just factions of varying menace. The economics of the region turn on the presence of the rare metal coltan, used in cell phones, and the more old-fashioned standbys, gold and diamonds. This is a dog-eat-dog world where there are few winners. These aren’t armies with strategic objectives and political agendas, but bands of brigands and predators who will kill for a few dollars worth of ore, raping and pillaging as the opportunities present themselves. It’s a world difficult to imagine.
Missionaries are slaughtered, children butchered and women tied to stakes where men can take liberties at any time of day or night. This is a world turned upside down, where working as a whore constitutes moral resistance and a grasp for power over men. Mama’s rules are obeyed in Mama’s house. Although the subject matter may sound exceedingly grim, Ruined is replete with moments of humor, humanity and connection. Through sheer force of will, Mama Nadi has created an oasis of sanity in an insane world. Even the most thuggish of her customers appreciate the respite.
There are no simple answers offered, however. One soldier who wishes to reconcile with the wife he discarded, and is now working at Mama’s, discovers that is impossible. Mama’s attempt to surgically repair Sophie’s damage and send her back to school founders when the creepy Mr. Harari, a white middle man who purchases the mineral loot from whomever has it and then moves it along to Western companies, takes her money but leaves Sophie behind. While Mama expects her girls to be grateful for the protection she provides, at another level she exploits them mercilessly. It’s all about the money, the success of the business.
This is a gripping piece of theater. No one will nod off under the influence of a post-prandial glass of wine. The looming terror just outside the door of Mama’s becomes a palpable, even if invisible, member of the cast. However bad it is, you know things could get worse in an instant — that Mama is walking along a tightrope and any slip could prove mortal. When Christian tires of the hazards of running guerilla roadblocks and asks Mama to make a new life with him, a faint, flickering glimpse of hope closes the story. Maybe that would work, but what will happen to Mama’s girls?
Miller Hudson, besides being a chronicler of the political scene, also is an astute observer of the arts.