New York City Theater
Manhattan Theatre Club, Manhattan
“Ruined” is a devastating drama, which depicts how a particular culture plays out during wartime. Specifically, the tale unfolds in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in “the recent past,” as the program notes. It is a story, both exotic and all too familiar, which haunts the viewer long after he/she leaves the theater.
“Democratic” is indeed an ironic term to describe life in the Congo—as no one gets democratic treatment—most particularly not its women. The title “Ruined” refers to the status of women who have been raped. Once such an event occurs, the raped woman is considered a pariah, an outsider. She is rejected by her husband (if she has a husband), she cannot marry, and, finally, she is ostracized by her entire village. She is “damaged goods.”
Such problems are intensified in this war. The country is in turmoil, with rebel soldiers fighting against government troops. One can barely distinguish which soldiers represent which group, but it hardly matters. Atrocities abound on both sides, with villages burned down, its people murdered. All are swaggering bullies, believing in their own causes. And of course rape is rampant.
Such is the backdrop for “Ruined,” which takes place in the bar/cafe of a small mining town in the Ituri Rain Forest. The establishment (which doubles as brothel and entertainment center) is owned and run by the indefatigable Mama Nadi. She is an African Mother Courage, who relentlessly pursues money and fiercely guards her prime possession—her bar/cafe. Survival, it would seem, is the name of her game.
Into this scene comes Christian, a small businessman who is her friend. He has two young girls in tow, both of whom are “ruined” and one of whom is his niece. Working in the brothel is their only hope of survival, and Christian (with many bribes) convinces Mama to take them in.
This production, with its almost all-black cast, plays out with music, dance, seduction, and poignancy. It is a menacing reality raised to a high level of art--another “Cabaret,” but a gritty, down-dirty “Cabaret.” The entire cast, with Saidah Arrika Ekuklona in the lead, is brilliant. Each actor is totally committed, immersed in his role, and the lines tumble out with African accents intact.
The end is to be expected. Mama’s bar/brothel is fading fast, and when she finally says, “I’m ruined,” she means not only the demise of her establishment, but a long-ago event in her own life.
Playwright Lynn Nottage is one of our best current playwrights (African-American, as it happens), and has a long list of fine plays and solid characterizations. But, this time around, she has topped herself. “Ruined” is not to be missed.
-- Irene Backalenick
Mar. 16, 2009