Lynn Nottage developed the themes and characters for her play, Ruined, from interviews she conducted with women in refugee camps from the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These were the women who survived the war between 1998 and 2003. Over 5 million did not. Ruined. The nation? The people? The land? Arena Stage performs Ruined in their threatre-in-the-round, with the set visible as we enter to take our seats. Wide planking makes up the floor, several small tables, a bar, a pool table. All appear worn, with the hint of colorful reds, blues, yellows, and greens around the edges and in the grain where use has not scuffed it away.
Ruined appears to start in a café or bar in a mining district of the Congo. A duo, Mama Nadi (Jenny Jules) and Christian (Jermiah W. Birkett), exchange conversation about running the business and the difficulty of bringing in supplies through the various battle lines of the military and militia. Mama Nadi entertains both sides of the conflict, depending upon who controls that region, as well as miners who have left their villages to seek the mineral wealth of the region.
Soon this banter turns to the grimmer theme of the play. Christian has brought not only supplies for the establishment, but two young women to barter. One, Salima (Donnetta Lavinia Grays), Mama Nadi is willing to take, for her business provides the men with sexual services. The other, Sophie (Rachael Holmes), she refuses, for she is “ruined”.
We learn the horrors of the sexual behavior of the warriors, for not only to do they rape the women of the villages, but after assaulting them, they mutilate their genitals. Should these women survive, they are likely to be ostracized from their villages for bringing shame to the families. Mama Nadi relucantly agrees to take on both young women because Christian assures her that Sophie has other skills, such as singing, cleaning, and helping with accounting, and she is his neice. Sophie had planned to pursue a college education before the soldiers abducted her. Christian pleads that if Mama Nadi will not accept them, both are likely to die in short order in the wild.
Salima, Sophie, and a third young woman, Josephine (Jamairiais Malone), develop their characters in relationship to each other. Josephine rules the brothel from atop her towering legs and deep cleavage. Initially she cleans up Salima and Sophie, out-fits them for their roles, and instructs them in what to do to please the men and bring in money. All the money the women earn is collected by Mama Nadi to house and feed them. Survival is a group effort.
Survival is a theme throughout the play. As distasteful as the plot may appear, these are women, who alone would die horrible deaths at the hands of men, protect themselves, attempting to minimize the humiliation and oppression of their work. Mama Nadi confiscates the ammo-clips from the weapons of the soldiers and commanders before they can have a drink or go to the back room. When cash is scarce or has no value, she bargains with the miners for ore and rough gems. When men become aggressive toward Salima and Josephine, the women gather to protect them and remind the men what they are allowed to do. While prostitution may seem to violate most moral, social, and legal codes, in this lawless setting it may be the way these women can band together until order returns.
While the play may appear to be primarily a feminist perspective of the effects of war on women, Ms. Nottage subtly suggests that war and lawlessness are as destructive for men. Businessmen are reduced to smugglers. Aide workers and missionaries run quickly, trying to influence whom they believe is in charge in order to carry out their missions. Most likely they end up being slaughtered without conscience. Salima’s husband, now in the army, arrives at the brothel, following rumors that someone saw someone who looked like his wife. He carries the pot, which he had gone to purchase the day that Salima was abducted from her garden to be raped by the militia for 50 days. Mama Nadi will not reveal whether any of her girls is this woman, for fear that he has come to reject her. He stands in the rain for two days, holding his pot and calling for her. He laments to one of the other soldiers that they are not warriors but farmers caught up in someone else’s war.
Among all this turmoil and gloom, the actors present sterling performances. They take us beyond the shock and horror of this situation. They bring us to accept their characters as people struggling with an undesirable situation. They transform from the hard shells that protect them in a war zone, to reveal their vulnerable and delicate sides. Sophie and Josephine become like sisters, fighting over superficial insults, but bonding together for strength that neither could produce alone. Sophie becomes like a daughter to Mama Nadi, even imitating gestures and facial expressions in the final scenes. Christian proposes to Mama Nadi, not as a traditional comic resolution of theatre, but for simple companionship. He poses a simple question, “Why not?”. In contrast to other scene changes, in which a harsh white light broadcasts strips across the stage like the tropical sun through half-drawn binds, the final scene ends in stripes of color, red, yellow, blue, green, leaving us with the plank floor and furniture illuminated brilliantly as this culture could be without the grinding effect civil war.
The playwright and Arena Stage have an agenda to go beyond the shock and disgust of how war and lawlessness affects people’s lives. Such a provocative plot could leave the audience feeling hopeless and futile. Rather, in the program, Arena Stage lists a number of non-government organizations, which provide assistance for health care, education, housing, etc. Should someone desire to respond with action, they have resource to pursue. www.arenastage.org
The week after we saw Ruined, I heard an “unconfirmed” news report that the Libian army was issuing Viagra to soldiers as they enter towns. The intent appeared to not just sanction rape as a weapon of war, but provide the men a way to assault women and girls multiple times. Ruined. The land. The people. The nation.