note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Sheila Barth
In the Congolese jungle, dangers lurk everywhere, but not necessarily from the cheetah, leopard, crocodile or deadly snakes.
Warring factions of rebel and government militia are paving a swath with their machetes, cutting up anything in their path, raping, mutilating and slaughtering women and children with reckless abandon.
In the midst of this murderous madness lies a neutral oasis, a brothel and canteen, where miners, grifters, merchants and soldiers mingle with pretty girls and pragmatic owner, Mama Nadi.
Thus begins Lynn Nottage’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatic play, “Ruined,” the story of Congolese women caught up in the ravages of war, that’s currently appearing at Huntington Theatre through Feb. 6. The play, a co-production with the La Jolla Playhouse and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is a stirring, realistic portrait of the women who suffer yet endure in the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo, coined the rape capital of the world. Nottage visited female victims for five years, gathering their stories, which they readily wanted to tell. She loosely based “Ruined” on Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 play about a woman who survives by her wits during the Thirty Years War; but she carries her story much further - into horrifying circumstances in which survivors remain hopeful.
Intensifying the actors’ portrayals, director Liesl Tommy, (who lived in South Africa but didn’t experience these nightmares firsthand), had the cast research and watch accounts of victims. The result is searing. Clint Ramos’ cluttered, two-level set ideally displays Mama Nadi’s bar and brothel, while Broken Chord’s sounds, music and music direction add tropical atmosphere, accented by Lap Chi Chu’s dramatic lighting changes. Kathleen Geldard’s contrasting costumes of native garb and prostitutes’ gilded high heels, revealing outfits, stylish wigs, military and rebel uniforms and civilians’ suits define characters’ personalities. It isn’t what they’re wearing, but how.
Tonye Patano as Mama Nadi is a dynamic, enigmatic, pivotal force in “Ruined”. Carla Duren as pretty, 18-year-old former university student, Sophie, sings plaintively, softly, her voice a sweet prayer for hope and healing of her ravaged, gang-raped, ruined body. Her every step is painful, an ugly, scarring reminder of her ordeal. She is aptly accompanied onstage by musicians Alvin Terry and Adesoji Odukogbe, playing guitar and percussion instruments.
Sophie’s friend Salima, loosely based on an authentic victim, whom Pascale Armand portrays with extraordinary sensitivity, is chilling when she reveals how soldiers stomped on her baby daughter’s head. killing her, while she was gang-raped, then taken and chained “like a dog” for five months. Although her family and husband cast her out, she remained hopeful at Mama Nadi’s. Jason Bowen as Salima’s husband, Fortune, is touching as the former farmer and unwilling soldier of the government’s army. He regretted his decision to spurn his wife and searches relentlessly for her.
Zainab Jah as prostitute Josephine has little sympathy for her fragile new roommates. She hopes white merchant Harari (Joseph Kamal) will keep his promise to take her away and set her up in a city high-rise apartment. During an angry tirade, Josephine reveals she was the daughter of a revered chief, and resents being forced into prostitution to survive.
Oberon K.A. Adjepong adds charm and levity as Sophie’s kindly uncle Christian and Mama Nadi’s unthwarted suitor; but he, too, is humilated during Commander Osembenger’s (Adrian Roberts) oppressive visits to Mama’s canteen and bar.
Several scenes graphically depict these victims’ dehumanization as they are caught in the crossfire of the commander’s troops and his nemesis, rebel leader Jerome Kisembe, (Wendell B. Franklin), at Mama’s canteen. Although Mama wisely takes the soldiers’ ammunition and keeps a machete under the bar, even she cannot escape the sprawling slaughter and ruination creeping closer to her domain.
BOX INFO: Two-act drama, written by Lynn Nottage, appearing at Huntington Theatre Company’s Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, now through February 6: Tuesday-Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, 8 p.m.; matinees, Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets are $25-$89; senior, military discounts, $5 off; subscriber, BU Community discounts, $10 off; 35-below tickets, $25; back row tickets, $25; student rush tickets two hours before curtain time for each performance, $15 each. Post-show talks with local scholars, aid workers, journalists, and other experts after most shows. Call 617-266-0800 or visit the Box Office.