Saidah Arrika Ekulona (left) and Condola Rashad in Lynn Nottage’s
‘Ruined’ at the Manhattan Manhattan Theatre ClubClub
Photo: Wall Street Journal
Last year HBO premiered The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, a documentary by Lisa F. Jackson. Greatest Silence introduced me to the atrocities going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where rebel groups and members of the Congolese Army sworn to protect its citizens have kidnapped, raped, tortured, and mutilated women. Jacksonâ€™s film gave voice to the women whoâ€™ve suffered, those trying to help them regain their place in society, and the men who felt so powerful and owed that theyâ€™d simply â€œtake what they wanted.â€
This year, Lynn Nottageâ€™s Ruined debuted at the Manhattan Theatre Club further publicizing the stories of the Congolese women on an Off-Broadway stage. (The Theatre recently announced that the Pulitzer Prize winning production has been extended for the seventh time. Everyone loves the play and it recently brought Oprah Winfrey and Jane Fonda to tears.)
The set is filled with tree trunks throughout the background illustrating the rainforest locale. Front and center viewers are in Mama Nadiâ€™s establishment complete with bar, pool table, and parrot. Mama Nadi (Portia replacing Saidah Arrika Ekulona) is terse with her supplier, Christian (Russell G. Jones) as he gulps down his ice cold Fanta. Christian is a gentleman whose name coincides with his kindness and family-oriented nature, yet at heart still a business man he provides Mama with her essentials such as soap, disinfectant, and two jumbo size boxes of condoms. The smile on Mamaâ€™s face at the receipt of the condoms in particular tips one off as to what kind of establishment sheâ€™s running and it is when Christian offers additional surprises in the trunk of his truck that these hints are confirmed.
Though a flirtatious banter goes on between the two Christian must beg Mama the business woman to take on additional girls in her establishment. In walk two harried young women, faces splotched with dirt and fear, their moves slow and steady as if expecting to be attacked. Sophie (Susan Heyward filling in on Thursday for regular Condola Rashad) and Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) hold onto each other as they look upon Mama Nadi for hope of a better life. Christian reveals that Sophie is his niece, a woman â€œruinedâ€ by soldiers of war and exiled by her family because of shame. Salima was a wife and mother who was kidnapped and held by rebels for five months before returning to her village to be shunned by her husband and family leaving her no place to go.
Hesitant to take on even a pretty â€œruinedâ€ girl and an ordinary woman in Salima Mama agrees when Christian, sweetening his pot with Belgian chocolates, pleads with her to make her brothel a refuge for these girls as it is for others. As Mama offers Sophie a taste of her chocolates a bond begins to form between the two.
One of the more tenured girls at Mama Nadiâ€™s is Josephine (Cherise Boothe), a spit fire with attitude and dance moves to match the frustration raging within her. Having been a chiefâ€™s daughter the rape and pillaging of her village left her at ground level far below the royalty she previously held. Josephine yearns to leave Mama Nadiâ€™s as much as anyone else and is counting on one of the older regular clients, Mr. Harari (Tom Mardirosian), as her ticket out of the DRC.
Soon after her arrival at Mama Nadiâ€™s Salima encounters some further disheartening news which brings back thoughts of her time at home. As Salima recounts the beautiful morning sun, her daughter, and the sweet tomatoes she was plucking the day of her attack each word and sentence creates a scene in everyoneâ€™s minds of how easily anything can be taken away from you. It was a day when men stampeded onto her land, battered her child, and disrupted everything that was peaceful to the point where she cannot even forgive her husband for abandoning her when she needed him the most. Josephineâ€™s story of how she was offered first for being the chiefâ€™s daughter brings back the inner turmoil she has but bottles up knowing that sheâ€™s better off in the handâ€™s of Mama. Sophieâ€™s story is never told, but the fact that sheâ€™s ruinedâ€“â€“incapable of satisfying a customer beyond the beautiful lull of her voice in songâ€“â€“with a limp that reflects what was taken away from her making her feel like less of a human being.
Most of the men of Ruined represent the desire for power between groups and how they one-up each other while threatening all those who donâ€™t show them respect. The saving graces are Salimaâ€™s remorseful husband, Fortune (ChikÃ© Johnson) who desires a reunion with his wife and Christian. Jerome Kisembe (Chris Chalk) is the rebel leader who terrorizes the DRC while claiming to want to save the Congolese citizens from the oppressive government. Commander Osembenga (Kevin Mambo) is one of the highest ranking officials for the Congolese army. When he arrives everyone is at a standstill. The Commander flaunts his power as he forces alcohol down Christianâ€™s throat in Mamaâ€™s establishment. Christianâ€™s preference for Fanta over whiskey is squashed by pressured mumbles from Mama and the leering eyes of the Commander. Christian downs shot after shot of whiskey only to succumb to the temptations of drink as the war gets worse and closer to Mamaâ€™s front door. Each party blames the other for the real suffering, refusing to acknowledge their part in disheartening their own people and creating a damning reputation for themselves.
Mama Nadiâ€™s is a place for all. She refuses to turn away a customer no matter what side of the fence theyâ€™re on. As long as their bullets are left at the door and they flash their money they are welcome for drink, roasted ground nuts, and women. Mama represents the woman who finally chose to stand up for herself and rely on no man for anything. Her tongue is sharp and at the same time sweet towards her patrons. One wonders if the hardness she developed is because sheâ€™s a victim of war in more ways than one. While being a shrewd business woman she also looks out for her girls, but never forgets that they are there to help her business survive. The ability to be invisible, neutral to all involved in the war is most important in Mamaâ€™s arsenal allowing her to maintain business with no outside influences, especially those of men. The playfulness and good times at Mamaâ€™s never overshadows the deep pain going through each person there. From the soldier that cried at Salimaâ€™s feet one night to the pain etched on Josephineâ€™s face after dancing for the men around her to the concern that Mama shows as she provides Christian beer after beer after beer.
The basis for Ruined is placing the reality at the forefront with rugged honesty while leaving some of the more horrific parts to your imagination. Nothing is resolved or may ever be resolved in the end. But as we watch, along with Josephine and Sophie, Mama and Christian sway back and forth in a gentle embrace -â€“â€“ Mama having finally giving in to his wish of one dance -â€“â€“ we are at least left with hope.
Ruined is currently at New York City Center, Stage One at 131 W. 55th Street between 6th & 7th Avenues. Performances are held on Tuesdays at 7pm; Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm; matinees are on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2pm. For more info, click here.
WORDS: Jennifer Baker-Henry
About the Author (Author Profile)A native New Yorker Jennifer Baker-Henry has been writing since she entered the academic institution and continues to do so every moment she gets. Jennifer received her MFA from The New School's graduate program in Creative Writing and is an alum of The City College of New York's baccalaureate program in English. She works as a production editor in academic publishing, while also freelancing as an ESL tutor, proofreader, and writer for the urban e-zine AroundHarlem.com. Jennifer was a mentor for Girls Write Now and now volunteers for the organization. She's also a writer-in-residence with the Jentel Artist Residency Program from April-May 2011. Jennifer is working on a variety of short stories in addition to a collection centered around race and family, and a YA novel. You can see her writing and baking on her website at www.jennifernbaker.com.
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