Lynn Nottage’s Ruined at Arena Stage hits all the high marks of truly compelling theater. Based on horrific conditions endured by women caught in the crosshairs of the deadliest war in the Congo that claimed millions of lives between 1998 and 2003, the compelling story line grabs attention from the beginning and doesn’t let go.
Originally and loosely influenced by the morally ambiguous issues in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage before it veered off on its own direction, Ruined tackles the uncomfortable topics of rape and subjugation of women in war.
Far from being the downer anticipated from the somber title, the production shows how love and humanity can penetrate even the darkest situations.
In an environment where no woman is safe, and any attempt at self-protection is futile, Mama Nadi has raised herself from the dregs and created a safe haven of sorts for women in the form of a night club brothel where men can eat, drink and enjoy the pleasures of a woman. Mama Nadi makes it clear to rebel leaders and the fearsome Commander alike that all weapons must be unloaded and parked for any food or service to be rendered. One look at the tasty treats at stake and the men comply with only a grumble before succumbing to pleasures to make them forget their own battle scars, until it’s time to take up their arms again.
The play opens with pleasant, easy banter between Mama Nadi and her long-time friend Christian who enjoys a cold Fanta soft drink. When talk shifts to some items in his truck that he’s trying to barter and sell, little do we expect that all this time he’s referring to human cargo, two young women who eventually enter, bruised, barefoot, terrified and hurt.
Far from being an unfeeling trafficker, Christian concedes that one of the women, his dear niece Sophie, has been so brutalized that the sexual trauma has left her “ruined,” and he pleads for Mama Nadi to take her in to keep her from more horrors in the bush. That a brothel could be seen as a safe-haven is a reflection of the deplorable conditions for these women as they struggle to survive.
Nottage interlaces the characters’ various stories with skill. Director Charles Randolph-Wright has the actors take command of their moments with full expression, and they infuse them with appeal and caring.
Mama Nadi is played by the remarkable Jenny Jules. A multi-award winning London actress (among them for her work at the famed Tricycle Theatre), Jules plays Mama Nadi with a no-nonsense dagger-like stare, clear, chiseled features, and a hard-edge demeanor. Nothing gets by her as she herds her gaggle of girls to provide service as needed, whether tending bar, lap dancing, singing, or leading a stranger to the back room for more. Showing defiant unshakeable strength, she can stare down the toughest arms-packing soldier, comfort the girls with tough-love tenderness, and negotiate her way through the bureaucratic mess. To think that we have an artist in our midst who went toe-to-toe with Helen Mirren in the “Prime Suspect” franchise is thanks enough. Watching her prove how she got there, with impeccable stage presence and powerful vocals and delivery in a role that is perfect for her is divine.
The rest of the cast is just as effective. Jeremiah W. Birkett plays friend Christian, her love interest if she would have him, with just the right mix of weary gravity laced with humor and easy going resolve. Like Jules, Birkett has a strong presence, helps anchor the script’s rhythmic passages with grace and eases the tension with a cajoling grin, mischievous eyes and even an impromptu boogie move on the dance floor.
The actresses portraying the trio of women working in the brothel under Mama Nadi’s watchful eye (and Randolph-Wright’s exquisite direction) relay their characters’ journeys with unwavering precision.
Rachael Holmes as Sophie is both tender and tough—she’s the one who’s been brutalized beyond repair and is yet strong enough to plot an escape from the wretched conditions, mindful of even worst fates for women in the bush. That this is a breakout role for Holmes is further proof of the reservoir of talent in this well-stocked town.
In a strong delivery, Donnetta Lavinia Grays plays her friend Salima who recounts the brutality in a touching monologue where she recalls the events of that fateful day when she was snatched from the village and heard her baby cry for the last time. Despite being shunned by the villagers, including her husband Fortune, Salima pines for home, yet in an elegant twist of the script, doesn’t jump at the chance when Fortune hunts her down longing for a chance to make it right and bring her back.
The drop-dead gorgeous Jamairais Malone plays Josephine as the long-limbed party girl who has made peace with her piece of Hell and lives in the moment, dreaming that one of her reliable regulars will do the right thing and rescue her from the ugliness and squalor, like in the romance novels they love. Until then, she’ll do what she needs to do to stay alive.
Also notable are Psalmayene 24 as Fortune, the farmer turned reluctant soldier yearning to do right by his wife, and Babs (Babatunde) Olusanmokun as the brutal army Commander with the menacing swagger of one who knows the absolute power of his command. The steady and reliable Lawrence Redmond helps to round out the talented cast as a well-meaning diamond merchant who has found a way to navigate the treacherous terrain. As Mr. Harari, it is Redmond who takes the pivotal action culminating in the theatrical arc in the play.
The intuitive sensibility of director Charles Randolph-Wright keeps the movement flowing in the complex four-sided arena where everything is exposed and nothing goes unnoticed. In addition to the heady cast, the production includes percussionists and musicians to help set the mood.
The musicians are an integral part of the production and the original music by Lindsay Jones adds rhythmic excitement ranging from the up-tempo Afrobeat to soft ballads of yearning for peace. The second act opens with a beautifully rendered duet between Mama Nadi and Sophie about the weariness of the soldier. When Josephine starts dancing quietly and seductively, the drumbeat becomes faster and more intense transitioning from harmless fun to menacing, effectively reflecting the mercurial environment that’s just a heartbeat away from danger.
The ensemble of additional actors sweep in and out and transition from festive clubbing to quiet dramatic moments in a flash. Movement direction by Keith Lamelle Thomas sets up the well-choreographed sequences, and the ingenious set design by Alexander V. Nichols takes full advantage of the recessed portions of the floor so that the women’s cots float up and down, converting the open space from bar to bedroom scenes and back.
All production elements rise to the level of the Pulitzer Prize winning script, which includes touching lyrics by Nottage, layered with issues of personal allegiance, tribal identity, retribution, and of course, survival.
Much has been written analyzing the ambiguous morality of the main character, Mama Nadi – is she profiting from the turmoil and pimping young helpless girls to fill her pockets, or providing a modicum of support for those most helpless victims of the ravishing war?
Nottage doesn’t have everyone march to discover their own humanity, but she provides glimmers that they could, if they would, in one of the most moving final wordless scenes I’ve ever seen, showing the powerful connection between Mama and Christian.
No one comes away unscathed in this piece, but that final scene tells us there is hope for healing the ruin in even the most severe devastation, including the personal landscapes of our own hearts and souls.
by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with 1 intermission