I am tempted to joke that the glowing, intelligent reviews of Lynn Nottage’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning drama, "Ruined" nearly ruined the play for me. It is the reviewers explication of the plot that almost discouraged me from going. From what I’d read I didn’t think I could face the play in a room full of other people. My timidity about the depiction of sexual violence had kept me away the way it often keeps me out of movie theaters. Others I spoke to likewise expressed uneasiness about putting themselves through it. I’m so glad I went to see the production at the Manhattan Theater Club. My understanding of the world and of myself has broadened through the experience of this play. This is, in my opinion, the best kind of theater evening.
The play is set in the Ituri Rainforest in the complex, war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo. Mama Nadi, the central protagonist of “Ruined,” may quickly become the tour de force part for African and African-American actresses. Portia owns it right now. And this is, happily, Mama Nadi’s play just as it is Mama Nadi’s bar-bordello. With frightening clarity Mama Nadi asserts her claim to a spot in the Ituri Rainforest and asserts herself in the drama. She is the hub of the play and it is around her that the other spokes revolve. Portia’s performance is truly wonderful. She is in full, glorious charge of the part.
Because I am mature enough to know that the self-assurance and authority Mama Nadi shows in the first act is hard won, I am not surprised by the beats that unfold in the play’s climax. Every turn of plot seems the right one. There is no falseness. In fact, I was listening for lofty words and I never heard them. I heard real words. I heard the beautiful expression of the deep feelings of the characters, as well as, clear, unequivocal language about events in their lives. The performance of Russell G. Jones as Christian is unforgettable. His wonderfully expressive face opens a window to his character’s tenacity, his constancy, his humor and his unabashed hopefulness. He helps the audience toward the finely crafted denouement. All of the cast members are skilled. Kate Whoriskey’s direction is flawless.
There is pathos in the life tales of the women of Mama Nadi’s and there is an emotional transition for each which is neither ham-handed nor formulaic. The individual talents of Quincy Tyler Bernstine as Salima, Cherise Boothe as Josephine and Condola Rashad as Sophie ably embellish a well written, well directed production.
In “Ruined,” the courage is in the specificity. I heard such forthright language in the testimonies of Women from the Democratic Republic of Congo who spoke at the tribunals of the Center For Women’s Global Leadership at the World Conference Against Race held in Durban, South Africa in August 2001. I attended with my sister, Cheryl L. Clarke, as part of the Global Center’s U.S. contingent. Women from around the world spoke of their own and their sisters’ rape, mutilation, torture, abuse, neglect, incarceration, discrimination and vulnerability to disease and famine. This play is a special tribute to the women from the Congo who shared their stories.