The personal compromises and self-delusions a group of Congolese brothel women are willing to employ to guarantee survival in the face of atrocity and genocide is the core theme of Lynn Nottage’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning drama Ruined, produced by the Manhattan Theater Club, and being performed at Stage I at the Manhattan City Center. The play is co-produced by the Goodman Theater in Chicago where it premiered in 2008.
The Manhattan Theater Club, one of the nation’s premiere not-for-profit theater producers, has provided theatergoers with contemporary dramas, musicals and comedies since its inception in 1971. The Club incorporates three theater venues: on Broadway, The Samuel J. Friedman Theater (formerly the Biltmore Theater;) and Stage I and Sage II Theatres off-Broadway at the Manhattan City Center. Ruined is the sixth Pulitzer Prize winning Drama the club has produced.
Travels to the refuge camps of Uganda, and the 1939 work Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht inform Nottage’s work. Initially, Nottage planned an adaptation of Brecht’s play, but her own experience interviewing Congolese women in Rwandan refugee camps prompted her own work. Unlike Brecht, the Brooklyn born, Cornell/Yale educated Nottage seeks to evoke an emotional response from the audience, rather than (in the case of Brecht) an intellectual one. “I believe in engaging people emotionally, because I think they react more out of emotion” than when they are “preached to, told how to feel. It was important that this not become a documentary, or agitprop”. Nottage’s plays frequently pivot on the experience of women, and here, the brutalities they have suffered civil war-torn Africa. Indeed the title references women, who have experienced rape, sexual abuse and mutilation so brutal that that they are ruined physically, emotionally and culturally.
The play opens in the barroom of Mama Nadi’s brothel with Christian, a local customer and “supplier” delivering goods to Mama Nadi (the July 28th performance featured understudy Jamie Lincoln Smith in the role of Simon.) Along with cigarettes, liquor and various sundries, Simon, a tea-totaller, supplies fresh women for the brothel. On this particular visit, he delivers Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstein), a simple minded woman who has been rejected by her family and village as the result of her kidnapping and subsequent servicing of a band of rebels in the bush, and Sophie (Condola Rashad), a girl of eighteen, who has been ruined. The flamboyant, emotionally detached Mama Nadi (Portia) at first refuses to take on Sophie – it’s bad for business - but agrees after Simon begs, praises Sophie’s talent for song and reveals that Sophie is his niece. He also bribes Mama Nadi with Belgian chocolates.
It is clear from the get-go that Mama Nadi plays both sides of the civil war fence and is interested in one thing, self-preservation. Mama Nadi has convinced herself and almost convinces the audience, that her prostitution of these women provides safe haven from the indecencies and rejection that they have already suffered. In addition, her ownership of the brothel represents her independence, from the brutalities of war and from Simon’s genuine romantic advances.
As the drama progresses the warring factions draw nearer the brothel and tensions mount. Christian begins drinking, the customers become more raucous. In addition, the audience gradually learns the stories of both the now pregnant Salima and another prostitute, Josephina (Victoire Charles), a tribal Chief’s daughter who has been dehumanized by similar atrocities as well as rejected from her village. Given her emotional simplicity, Salima’s story is particularly heartbreaking. Although the title references her, we never do hear Sophie’s story. What the audience begins to understand is that all of these women are the victims of Congolese Civil War. In the end, each, even the apparently hard-hearted, mercenary Mama Nadi, though damaged, have not been destroyed by the conflict. It is their courage that enables their survival.
Additional characters, all male, include rebel leader Jerome Kisimbe (Chris Chalk); Commander Osembenga (Kevin Mambo); mercenary Mr. Harari (Tim Mardirosian); and Salima’s repentant husband Pascal (Ron McBee).
In a drama, where men could easily be seen as only as monstrous perpetrators of evil and women as spiritless victims, Director Kate Whoriskey, effectively draws out the subtle personality traits of each of the characters. She evokes sympathy and distain for almost all involved. Having previously directed another of Nottage’s works, Intimate Apparel, Whoriskey carefully balances the push-pull, intense emotions that the dramatist has penned. Here, almost everyone is a victim, either of the atrocities of war, or the Western Colonialism that left countries such as the Congo bereft.
Stand out performances culled by Whoriskey include the deceptively complex Salima, enacted by the aforementioned Quincy Tyler Bernstein; the delusional Mama Nadi, flamboyantly portrayed by Portia; and the sympathetic, sweetly voiced, yet spirited, Sophie as rendered by New York newcomer Condola Rashad. Rashad premièred the role at the Goodman Theater. Among the men, Jaime Lincoln Smith as Simon, reveals helplessness and fear in the face of the anticipated horrors. Initially, it was difficult to hear and understand Smith as Simon. But he quickly recovered his voice either as the result of his own confidence or an adjustment in the sound system. Indeed, despite the efforts of dialect coach Charlotte Fleck, all of the actors seemed, at times, to struggle with maintaining their accent. Of final note is Kevin Mambo’s Commander Osembenga, the character most closely identified with the senselessness and evil of war, and the ego and bravado necessary to justify its leadership and proliferation.
The set, designed by Derek McLane, transitions between the barroom and the shared living quarters of Salima, Josephina and Sophie. Though it incorporates cheerful local color, it still conveys the poverty of the situation and the isolation within the density of the surrounding rain forest. Costumes designed by Paul Tazewell suggest the same local color while reflecting the rag-tag collection of characters living at Mama Nadi’s. Finally, the entire production is punctuated by music composed by Dominic Kanza with lyrics written by Nottage. Performed by Congolese guitarist Simon Shabantu Kashama and sung by members of the cast, the music transitions the narrative, and reflects the tradition of oral history and story telling indigenous to many African countries.
Ruined is a powerful drama that evokes complex emotions regarding the nature of survival, the power of evil, the evil of power and the uselessness of cultural judgments cast upon those incapable of defending themselves. What Lynn Nottage has so successfully written and the Manhattan Theater Club so powerfully staged is the experienced collapse and inevitable triumph of the human spirit in the face unimaginable evil. With so many spectacles, theatrical interpretations of animated feature films, and resuscitations of past productions populating the current theater scene in New York, it is edifying to leave a play a little sadder, a little more informed, and certainly asking a lot more questions.
 New York Times By Celia McGee, “Approaching Brecht, by Way of Africa,” New York Times: January 21, 2009,