Surviving pain beyond words

Lynn Nottage's 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Ruined," which opened Saturday in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's New Theatre, is right out of today's headlines.

"Fleeing rebels kill hundreds of Congolese," read the front page of the New York Times on "Ruined's" opening day. The article described a flare-up of violence by a rebel group that was nearly defeated. Whole villages were destroyed, with men, women and children killed or marched into the jungles as conscripts.

What the article doesn't mention is how hundreds of women are raped routinely by the various factions as battles rage unendingly across this mineral-rich country.

It was Nottage's concept to update Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children" by setting it in war-torn Africa. A trip to the refugee camps in Uganda gave the work a totally different direction. "Ruined" became a play about rape — the women who have been raped and the men who do the raping.

In this war, rape is simply another military tactic. By raping, abducting and killing women and girls, the various military groups, Congolese or from neighboring nations, seek to destroy the social fabric and create chaos in which the strongest faction thrives. Rape is not a sexual act; it is an act of domination, a demonstration of power.

In the Congo, women who are raped are considered "damaged" and shunned by their husbands, families, community. Many women have been not only "damaged," but "ruined." Repeated rapes, rapes with objects such as bayonets, knives and bottles, create internal mutilation that can be repaired only surgically. These women suffer constant pain, persistent hemorrhaging and incontinence.

"Ruined" is ultimately a play about resilience and survival in the face of the unspeakable. The playwright, director Liesl Tommy and the creative team at OSF have delivered it to us impeccably.

The setting in "Ruined" is Mama Nadi's comfortable brothel in the middle of the war zone: a territory up for grabs for its deposits of the mineral coltan, a key element in cell phones and computer chips. Mama Nadi works hard to keep her customers peaceful as well as satisfied. Here, hands and feet are washed before entering and bullets and ammunition clips are surrendered at the bar prior to quaffing a drink or selecting a woman. Mama Nadi's girls work as barmaids and whores without pay. What they get is a safe haven, a roof over their heads and food. The humiliation and abuse by the customers are a small price to pay after what the girls have seen and experienced.

Mama Nadi (Kimberly Scott) is a pragmatist. No illusions, no sentimentality. When the traveling salesman Christian (Tyron Wilson), who supplies soap, cigarettes and condoms, turns up with two new girls, Mama Nadi drives a hard bargain for them. When she finds out the pretty one, Sophie (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), has been "ruined" by having been raped with a bayonet, she refuses to take her, even for free. Christian cajoles, persuades Mama Nadi that the girl can sing, is educated, can do bookkeeping. It is only when he finally reveals that Sophie is his niece that Mama Nadi reluctantly agrees.

All of Mama Nadi's girls are "damaged." Salima (Chinasa Ogbuagu), the other girl brought by Christian, had been abducted from her farm, raped and kept in the jungle for five months with the soldiers. "They used me like a rag," she says. When she was finally released and returned to her village, her husband and family blamed her for the rape and captivity and threw her out.

Josephine (Victoria Ward) was a chieftain's daughter. That made her a target in the village, a tool for terror. "They all watched, said nothing, did nothing," she says. "Afterwards, they didn't even cover me with a blanket."

When the women are alone, they bicker and bond like the young girls they are, reading romance novels, painting fingernails, sharing dreams of a different and better life. But when the bar fills with soldiers, they are expected to serve drinks, flirt, allow themselves to be groped and then have sex with men very much like the ones who violated them. Sophie sings, Salima serves and Josephine dances as though their lives depend on these actions — as indeed they do.

Tommy has created this agonizing dichotomy perfectly. Her soldiers are young, virile, aggressive. Their leaders, typified by the rebel Jerome Kisembe (Jimonn Cole) and the government's army commander Osembenga (Kenajuan Bentley), are both arrogant and power-mad — and also dangerously unpredictable. There is a sense of imminent threat and ever-present menace every moment they are onstage. It is a graphic counterpoint to the plight of the women and their anguish.

Nottage has used the salesman Christian and a Lebanese minerals trader, Mr. Harari (Armando Duran), to depict civilians caught in the middle of the fighting. But while Mr. Harari cynically exploits every faction and every angle, Christian is a Congolese. His pain for his country and his countrymen is achingly palpable.

Like Brecht, Nottage uses onstage music to drive and delineate the action, but she has not used polemic. These lyrics are immediate, graphic and tremendously poignant. The music, composed by Broken Chord Collective's Daniel Baker and Aaron Meicht, is both hard-edged and African-infused, as is the choreography by Randy Duncan.

Of course, Mama Nadi's balancing act cannot last. A brief moment of compassion as she tries to protect Salima from her imploring husband, Fortune (Peter Macon), brings on the violence and destruction she has worked so hard to avoid. Nottage tries to end the play on a positive note with a lyric and hopeful scene between Mama Nadi and Christian, but it doesn't really work in the brutally honest context she has created.

Tommy's staging of this production is superb. She has a cast of incredible actors making the people onstage indelibly real and present. With the audience in the New Theatre seated on either side of the action, scenic designer Clint Ramos has given her an evocative multi-level set for the bar and brothel with patches of jungle at either end, under a "roof" of haphazard wooden slats. The lighting by Robert Peterson positively breathes hot and steamy.

That such resilience and survival can exist in the human spirit is a marvel. "Ruined" graphically presents its everyday reality in a breathtaking and gripping way.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at

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