Don’t mess with Mama Nadi (Dawn Ursula), the flinty matriarch of a bar and brothel in a Congo mining town. She has a machete and she knows how to use it.
Mama Nadi wields more than a weapon in Ruined, Lynn Nottage’s shattering take on Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, examining the brutal maneuvers necessary to survive amid the amorality of war.
Like Mother Courage, Mama Nadi appears to be as ruthless as the war raging outside her corrugated tin walls. Yet, in Ursula’s breathtaking portrayal, you see flickers of empathy here and there when her mask of impermeable conviviality slips.
Ruined not only delves into “What price survival?” but posits that most wars are waged atop the bodies of women. Gang rape and sexual exploitation is as commonplace as Kevlar in the battle zone, knitted tight into the fabric of life during war time.
A menacing air hangs over the Everyman production, vigorously directed by Tazewell Thompson. But inside the bar, there is music, whiskey, pretty girls and cold beer (the invitingly ramshackle set by Brandon Mitchell incorporates strings of colored lights, mismatched chairs and Sunday comics pages as wallpaper décor). It’s not easy to keep the peace since a steady stream of rebel fighters and government soldiers stomp around Mama Nadi’s waving AK-47s, groping the women and generally braying their manliness.
It is amid this cruel culture that Mama Nadi plies her trade, using everything in her power to keep her bar a safe haven for the soldiers, miners and most importantly, herself and her stable of prostitutes—young girls with nowhere else to go. The continuing trauma for these girls is that although gang-raped against their will, in their communities and families they are now considered damaged, bad luck, and pariahs.
Two of the girls—Sophie (Zurin Villanueva, agilely playing a girl victimized but not completely cowed), who was mutilated by rape with a bayonet, and Salima (Monique Ingram, searing as a woman who turns the violence done to her horribly inward), rejected by her husband and village after she was attacked and kidnapped into sexual slavery—represent how rape permeates every aspect of society.
There is physical assault, of course, but also the raping of the land by blood diamond miners and seekers of the element coltan, an important ingredient in the manufacturing of smartphones and tablets. A suggestion that rape evaporates the spirit is seen in the dead-eyed rage of Salima’s husband Fortune (Bueka Uwemedimo, dangerously forbidding) and Mama Nadi’s cavalier attitude toward her girls.
Mama Nadi is no stereotypical madam with a tender heart. She’s all business, the picture of neutrality as she cajoles money out of fighters on both sides of the conflict while charming her regular customers Christian (Jason B. McIntosh, who makes weakness electrifying), a salesman as canny as Mama Nadi and sweet on her, and Harari (Bruce Randolph Nelson, in a smart, Graham Greene-ish turn), an opportunistic dealer in war supplies who dotes on popular bar girl Josephine (Jade Wheeler, an appealing mix of generosity and seen-it-all disparagement).
In Ursula’s virtuoso performance, she glides between bright cordiality and cutthroat, to the point where you suppress a gasp when she tells one of the girls “I don’t care if he just slit your mother’s throat—you go with that man.”
Feb 4 – March 8
315 West Fayette Street
Baltimore, MD 21201
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $34 – $60
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets or call 410.752.2208
The Everyman production devastates and invigorates because it seems so visceral and personal. There is not a drop of agitprop and you never feel as though you are being preached at or schooled. Although the circumstances are indeed grim, Ruined is staged with lightness and brightness, with musical moments—Sophie sings the pain away—and flashes of humor from the women.
We are right there in the bar, not sitting back at a polite distance, murmuring “Dreadful, the situation in the Congo.” We are standing with Mama Nadi and her girls—proud, independent women broken by the hands of men but stronger and fiercer in their diminishment than most people are intact.
Ruined by Lynn Nottage . Directed by Tazewell Thompson . Featuring Ricardo Blagrove, Khalil Clash, Gary-Kayi Fletcher, Monique Ingram, Manu Kumasi, Keith Leroyal, Sean-Maurice Lynch, Morgan McAdory, Jason B. McIntosh, Bruce Randolph Nelson, Elias Ramos, Dawn Ursula, Bueka Uwemedimo, Zurin Villanueva, Jade Wheeler, and Gavin Whitt . Scenic Design: Brandon McNeel . Lighting Design: Stephen Quandt . Costume Design: David Burdick . Sound Design: Fabian Obispo assisted by Amy Wedel . Fight Choreography/Weapons Desigh: Lewis Shar . Props Master: Jillian Matthews . Stage Manager: Maribeth Chaprnka assisted by Cat Wallis . Dramaturg: Naomi Greenberg-Slovin . Produced by Everyman Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.