One of the most troubled and lawless places in the world right now is the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffering the malign aftermath of colonial rule, riven by inner conflict, the site of proxy wars involving neighboring countries, and made particularly dangerous by the presence in its soil of rich troves of coveted minerals. There are no heroes in this conflict: All factions are equally brutal and bloodthirsty. But if everyone's life is hell, Congolese women, raped and mutilated by the thousands, are condemned to the lowest circle. In attempting a play about the plight of these women — several of whom she interviewed in refugee camps — Lynn Nottage faced a couple of obvious problems: how to keep the work from devolving into a polemic, and how to communicate the sheer horror of the situation without losing her entire audience. But she has fully succeeded. Ruined, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is neither self-righteous nor demoralizing. It is a richly textured, compassionate, tough-minded evening of theater, filled with characters as life-affirming as they are profoundly and shamefully victimized.
The action takes place in a bar and whorehouse run by Mama Nadi, a woman hardened in flame who will do whatever she must to survive. Nottage has said she was inspired by Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children. Both plays show the petty profiteering that goes on at the edge of all wars and the debasement of human feeling; both make it clear that there's no use looking for morality in war and no sense in taking sides. But where Mother Courage places money above the well-being of her own children, Mama Nadi is strongly protective of her girls — as long as they understand that her needs get met first. While the tone of Mother Courage is distanced and ironic, the heated, poetic dialogue of Ruined pulls us in tight. Mama Nadi believes the women in her house are safer than they would be anywhere else — and she's clearly right. She's also a lion in her determination to keep this fragile corner of the world not only functioning, but open to the small pleasures of music, and even chocolate and lipstick.
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Mama Nadi's latest recruits, taken on at the urging of salesman-supplier Christian, are Sophie, an intelligent young woman with a good singing voice and a head for numbers, who has been raped with a bayonet and ruined for sex; and Salima, whose story is equally harrowing. Kidnapped by soldiers, held as a slave and gang-raped at will, she finally returned home, only to be rejected by her husband. These two join Josephine — daughter of a tribal chief who proved unable to protect her —who hopes her regular customer, the Lebanese merchant Harari, will provide a safe harbor.
The patrons are forced to remove the clips from their weapons on entry. They are sometimes pathetic, sometimes drunkenly out of control, always frightening. From outside comes the steady crackle of gunfire. And still there are moments of humor and even joy. Sophie walks with a wide-legged stance that makes it clear every movement causes pain, but she jokes and jousts with the other women, and reads them a romance in which the heroine is courted by a gentle, loving hero.
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 30. Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
Kim Staunton's Mama Nadi is the strong backbone of director Seret Scott's strong production. She wholeheartedly takes on the character's rage and toughness while simultaneously communicating a deep tenderness. No one does wise, deep-souled fools better than Harvy Blanks, and his poetic Christian is a perfect match for Staunton — and the moral center of the play. Joy Jones is a pragmatic, sometimes pitiable, sometimes spiteful Josephine; Tallia Brinson is a movingly innocent Sophie; and when Daphne Gaines describes Salima's ordeal, it chills your spine. Keith Hamilton Cobb gives a mesmerizing performance as Commander Osembenga, a handsome monster, exulting in his power to hurt and destroy. (Someone should cast this man as Othello, Hotspur or Henry V.) And Sam Gregory lightens things up with a close-to-comic Harari. The production is also full of music, fiery and infectious, provided by two talented on-stage musicians: Ron McBee and composer Keith E. Johnston.
Most important, though, Nottage provides redemption at the play's end — a not entirely convincing redemption, given the grimness of the situation, but because of that very grimness, both artistically satisfying and deeply necessary.