Geneva Anderson digs into art

review: in Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Ruined,” life in the war-ravaged Congo comes to life, at Berkeley Rep through April 10, 2011

Oberon K.A. Adjepong (L) and Tonye Patano star in Ruined, a powerful new play by Lynn Nottage that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, at Berkeley Rep through April 10, 2011. Photo courtesy of

In Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winning Ruined at the Berkeley Rep, Mama Nadi courageously runs a bar and whorehouse in a jungle mining town in the war-torn eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Her customers are miners, rebels, or government soldiers, plunderers– whoever happens to be roaming or to control that particular spot of land on any given day.  And all the women who work for her have been “ruined” — their humanity degraded through rape, one of the most heinous of war crimes.    But is she protecting or profiting by the women she shelters?  How far will she or they go to survive?  Can a price be placed on human life?  All of these questions fuel the drama in Ruined, a remarkable theatrical accomplishment crafted with sensitivity, hope, and humor that unflinchingly addresses the sexual violence perpetrated against women living in the shadow of war.  

Lynn Nottage is well known for her plays Intimate Apparel (2003) and Las Meninas (2002) that addressed people marginalized in history.  Ruined looks at the contemporary horror of the largest war in modern African history, the Second Congo War, which began in 1998 and directly involved eight nations, as well 25 armed groups.  By 2008, the war and its aftermath had claimed the lives of 5.4 million people, making it the deadliest conflict since WWII.  Sexual violence—rape and sexual mutilation– became so common in the eastern DRC, that an April 2010 study by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) found a 17-fold increase in civilian rapes there between 2004 and 2008.  Surprisingly, rape continued well after the war too due to a complete breakdown in social structures.  

Ruined is inspired by actual interviews Nottage conducted in the Congo in 2004 with women who readily told her their stories.  “By the end of the interviews,” writes Nottage in the playbook (p. 18), “I realized that a war was being fought over the bodies of women. Rape was being used to punish and destroy communities.”  Ruined shines a light on the misogyny that feeds the phenomenon of mass rape and on the desperation of its unwitting female victims.  There is no one who can watch Ruined and not be affected.  And what we choose to do with our awareness and provocation, can lead to change.   

In Nottage’s play, the girls who come to work for Mama Nadi (Tonye Patano) do so because they have no options, nowhere else to go.  Mama Nadi profits from their bodies but houses, feeds, and protects these girls from mutilation and murder.  Within the confines of her shack-cum-brothel, they are safer than they would be anywhere else in this ravaged land. 

(L to R) Tonye Patano, Jason Bowen and Pascale Armand star in Ruined, a powerful new play by Lynn Nottage that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama at Berkeley Rep through April 10, 2011. Photo courtesy of

As Nottage slowly fills in details in each of her characters’ past and present lives, she firmly establishes the identity of each of the women that history has sought to eliminate.  Mama Nadi, the play’s lynchpin and shrewd matriarch, is a survivor and profiteer.  Apolitical, she will serve anyone as long as they check their weapons at the door.  It is the sheer force of her personality and the sexual escape she offers the rebels that keep her safe.

When Christian (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) unexpectedly delivers two girls along with the supplies he hopes to sell her, she callously inspects them like meat and refuses.  When he offers her two for the price of one, flirts, and throws in some chocolates, she agrees. Sophie (Carla Duren), the beautiful one, was kicked out of her home after being assaulted by rebel soldiers.  She’s not going to be of any good to Mama because she’s been ruined—raped, ravaged, and then genitally mutilated by a bayonet.  She walks unevenly and laboriously, every step an effort.  Reluctantly, Mama agrees to take her because she comes packaged with Salima (Pascale Armand), who is plain but genitally intact.  Salima was raped and then held captive in the jungle for five months only to have her husband blame her for her fate.  When she is alone, she desperately cradles an imaginary baby in her arms and replays the moment she was taken again and again.  It is not until the second act, when her husband shows up, that we learn the depths of her horrific tale and the pain that will drive her to commit an unredeemable act.    

(L to R) Zainab Jah, Carla Duren and Pascale Armand star in Ruined, a powerful new play by Lynn Nottage that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama at Berkeley Rep through April 10, 2011. Photo courtesy of

The two girls join Josephine (Zainab Jah), the tough talking, hardened, and once envied daughter of a village chief who, ravaged and abandoned, now turns tricks in the brothel.  Tossed aside by family and their community, the girls bond over Sophie’s sweet singing and her reading of an engrossing romance novel where a passage about a first kiss can enrapture them all day long.  Squabbling, talking and at times laughing, they gradually adapt to their new environment and all look to Mama to protect them from the violence that rages outside their door.  

Throughout the play, Mama stashes and pulls out wads of cash out from between her breasts, very concerned with profit but not so good with the books for which she relies on Sophie.  When betrayed, her retaliation is swift.   It is only late in the second act that we learn she is capable of compassion and generosity.  In all, Nottage has crafted a very affecting portrait of a woman who has survived but has shed parts of her soul to do so.  The ending thus came as a surprise for me but I will not reveal it here.   Ruined owes a great deal to Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, another story of a maternal military supplier who connives her way through war.

Carla Duren (Sophie) sings hauntingly beautiful songs whose lyrics were written by Nottage to original music by Dominic Kanza.  Each cast member gives a highly engaging performance, creating the magical and rare feeling that great theatre evokes–that everything is in sync and flowing.   

Page to Stage, Monday, April 4, 2011, 7 PM: human rights issues discussion

To facilitate further conversation about Ruined’s thought-provoking script and the important issues it raises, Berkeley Rep is hosting a free event in the Roda Theatre at 7:00 PM on Monday, April 4.  Page to Stage will feature four experts in social justice from nonprofit organizations working to promote women’s rights in Africa. The panelists include Heidi Lehmann from the Women’s Empowerment and Protection Unit of International Rescue Committee, Muadi Mukenge from the Global Fund for Women, Rachel Niehuus from the Cal Human Rights Center, and Anneke Van Woudenberg from the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.  Madeleine Oldham, Berkeley Rep’s literary manager and dramaturg, will moderate the conversation.  (The lobby and café open at 6:00 PM, and the theatre opens at 6:30 PM for general-admission seating. Donors to Berkeley Rep get an opportunity to meet the guests of honor at an exclusive reception catered by Etc Catering, Peet’s Coffee & Tea, and Raymond Vineyards.)

Ruined :   Written by Lynn Nottage, Directed by Liesl Tommy
Designed by Randy Duncan (choreographer), Clint Ramos (sets), Kathleen Geldard (costumes), Lap Chi Chu (lights), and Broken Chord (sound and original music)
Starring: Oberon K. A. Adjepong, Pascale Armand, Jason Bowen, Carla Duren, Wendell B. Franklin, Zainab Jah, Joseph Kamal, Adesoji Odukogbe, Kola Ogundiran, Okieriete Onaodowan, Tonye Patano, Adrian Roberts, and Alvin Terry

Lynn Nottage:  Nottage was born in Brooklyn in 1964 and is a graduate of Brown University and the Yale School of Drama. She received a Guggenheim Grant for Playwriting (2005), the MacArthur “Genius” Award (2007) and numerous other awards including the PEN/Laura Pels Award for Drama, and the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award.

In 2009, Ruined won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as the Drama Desk Award, the inaugural Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play, the Lucille Lortel Award, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, an Obie Award, and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Play.  Its world premiere was at the Goodman Theater (New Stages Series) in 2007 and its London premiere was at the Almeida Theatre.  It is playing at numerous regional theatres in the United States this year.

Nottage’s other plays include Crumbs from the Table of Joy (1995); Fabulation, or the Re- Education of Undine (2004), which received an Obie Award; Intimate Apparel (2003), which received the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play and became the nation’s most produced play in 2005- 06; Las Meninas (2002); Mud, River, Stone (1998); Por’knockers (1995); and POOF! (1993).  

Liesl Tommy: A South African native who grew up under apartheid, Tommy is known for working with young African- American writers like Eisa Davis, Danai Gurira, and Tracey Scott Wilson.  She has directed two plays by Lynn Nottage: Ruined at the Huntington, La Jolla Playhouse, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the world premiere of A Stone’s Throw at Women’s Project.  Tommy was awarded the NEA/TCG Directors Grant and the New York Theatre Workshop Casting/Directing Fellowship and has been a guest director and teacher at Juilliard, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and Trinity Rep/Brown University’s MFA Directing and Acting Program.

Details:  Ruined runs through April 10, 2011 with performances Tuesday-Sat at 8 PM, Sunday at 7 PM, and at 2PM (matinee) on Saturday and Sunday.  Berkeley Rep is located at 2025 Addison Street (near the intersection of Addison and Shattuck Avenue), Berkeley, 94704. Tickets: $73 to $34.  Box office:  (510) 647-2949 or .  Parking: paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre.  The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is validated in the theatre lobby.

March 15, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment