Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Ruined at Arena Stage

War is a devasting experience.  It is hard on the combatants and brutal on the civilians caught up in the maelstrom.  From 1998-2003, the Second Congo War was fought in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Playwright Lynn Nottage traveled there to interview female Congolese refugees.  The women in this conflict suffered brutal indignities being captured by both sides and used as sex slaves for the soldiers.  More than 50,000 women from babies to the elderly were brutally raped often with objects that caused permanent physical injuries.  These women, defined as "ruined" suffered more when they were cast out by their families and villages.

It is in the center of this horrible war that the 2009 Pulitzer prize-winning play, Ruined takes place.  We are at the brothel and watering hole of Mama Nadi, a woman who provides alcohol, music and women to soldiers on both sides of the civil war in order to survive.   A touching give and take relationship with the trader and supplier, Christian leads her to take in two new women, Salima, rejected by her husband and family after being kidnapped and held for months as a sex slave and Sophie, Christian's niece who has been brutally raped and is now considered "ruined."    It is a delicate dance to stay open and neutral as the war intrudes on Mama Nadi's place, but it is a journey to hell and back that keeps the audience in an emotional grip throughout the performance.

Featuring a strong ensemble of actors and musicians,Ruined is a compelling evening of theater for an audience seeking cathartic drama.   As the ladies surviving as Mama Nadi's prostitutes, Jamairais Malone, Rachael Holmes and Donnetta Lavinia Grays give devastating layers to what appear at first glance to be archetype characters.   Ms. Malone, as the haughty Josephine tries to maintain her status in the degradation of prostitution.  There is a regality in her performance that layers her initial bitchy persona.

Ms. Holmes' Sophie, is a sweet innocent who because of her injuries can only earn a living singing.  She delicately navigates Sophie's naïveté and grows confidently into a more mature woman by evening's end.  As Salima, the rejected wife, Ms. Grays is heartbreaking.   Hiding a horrendous secret, she survives as she can only to be confronted by her past when her husband unexpectedly arrives searching inexplicably for the wife he cruelly abandoned months earlier.

As the trader, Christian, Jeremiah W. Burkett is a complicated man.  Sweetly bantering with Mama Nadi and trying to do right by his damaged niece, he carefully navigates a difficult role.  Christian must face his demons as he fights to survive and try to come out with some dignity and humanity intact.  Mr. Burkett succeeds.

As the center of the play, Mama Nadi is a fascinating character and Jenny Jules is a force on the Fichandler stage.   Mama Nadi is a tough survivalist with an inexplicable soft touch for the ruined Sophie who can barely earn her keep.  At turns a fierce defender of her territory who can brutally control her girls, yet protective of the women in her employ, Ms. Jules gives a performance that will surely be remembered at next year's Helen Hayes awards.

The play is expertly directed in the round by Charles Randolph-Wright.  The sets by Alexander V. Nichols, costumes by ESosa and lighting by Michael Gilliam cohesively bring this war ravaged oasis to life.  Ruined is a compelling theatrical event of the devastation of war and a triumph of survival.

Ruined by Lynn Nottage is being presented on the Fichandler stage at Arena Stage in the Mead Center for American Theater through June 5, 2011.   For tickets and other performance information including extensive dramaturg notes, please visit www.arena

Postscript: Late in the evening of May 10th, The Thespian learned in a news report from  of a study that shows that even today an average of 1,100 women are still being raped on a daily basis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The figure is now believed to total more than 400,000 just in the years 2006 and 2007.  This is a rate 26 times higher than previously believed. The study only counted women between the ages of 16 and 49 and did not include younger or older women or even the men who have also been brutalized.   

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