By Diana SaengerREVIEW
Imagine a battlefield so accessible it’s repeatedly sought out in a war-torn country. This battlefield, once fertile and life producing, is incessantly destroyed by the ravages of depraved warriors. As playwright Lynn Nottage discovered on a research trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo in East Africa for her play “Ruined,” this battlefield is called “a woman.”
Nottage’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, at the La Jolla Playhouse through Dec. 19, is a profound story so expertly told it brought tears to many in the audience on opening night, Nov. 21.
Tears flowed from Nottage herself, she writes, while interviewing one of the many “ruined” Congolese women. In the program notes about her experience with a woman named Salima, Nottage writes, “She related her story in such graphic detail that I remember wanting to cry out for her to stop.”
In the play, Salima (Pascale Armand) is one of several women taken in by Mama Nadi (Tonye Patano). Mama has found a way to survive in her plundered homeland. While militia solders invade villages and rape and/or kill the women, Mama invites them to her oasis. Soldiers come there for drink, music, laughs, and a roll in the back room. So while Mama gives refuge to these women, she also saves them from the otherwise deplorable treatment they would receive after being raped in the villages. For once a women is “defiled,” she suffers abandonment and rejection by her husband and her village.
Salima, along with Sophie (Carla Duran), arrive at Mama’s with Christian (Oberon K.A. Adjepong). He’s a salesman who brings Mama goods to keep her bar filled and her spirits lifted. It takes some real bargaining to talk Mama into taking Salima, and even more so to accept Sophie. Now suffering medical and psychological affects from savage beatings and sexual mutilations, the women are considered “ruined.” Mama sees no point in taking them in, but a box of chocolates from Christian quickly changes her mind.
At first Mama’s business is good. Salima and another girl, Josephine (Zainab Jah), keep busy with soldiers that come and go. One of Mama’s rules is guns remain at the door and the girls be treated well. But as the war outside the bar escalates, the soldiers salute their testosterone and become more unruly. Mama has her hands full trying to keep the girls safe and the cash box filled.
Although director Liesl Tommy’s (“Eclipsed,” “The Good Negro,” “Uncle Vanya,”) directing and production experience includes several themes along this line, her dedication to celebrating the courage of women affected by atrocities is evident in her confident direction of “Ruined.”
A precise and talented cast enhances this production. In her portrayal of Mama, Patano shows that a woman can be as tough as nails or as blissfully happy over something as trivial as a tube of lipstick. Adjepong makes easy work of his character Christian, an affable guy who slinks in and out of Mama’s between blasts of bullets, always trying to woo her.
The three actresses portraying Mama’s girls are exceptional. Duran makes the audience feel her injustice from scene one. Broken, mortified and fearful, she finds an inner peace when allowed to tend to trivial duties in the bar and sing. But it only takes one out-of-control and ruthless Commander (Adrian Roberts) to bring all of Sophie’s emotional scars to the surface again, and we feel her pain.
Salima’s character has little angst until her husband Fortune (Jason Bowne) shows up at the bar demanding to see her. Mama claims Salima is not there. Furious that her husband never protected her from being abducted and tortured, Salima can’t trust him to be her husband again. When Fortune takes a stand outside the bar and refuses to leave because he loves Salima, it’s too much for her to bear.
Jah infuses Josephine with a mindless energy. She’s the attractive dancer who seems more than willing to do her job well. But even she has a breaking point, and it’s a metaphor for the theme of this play. War comes with unforgettable and unforgiving acts of atrocity.
If you go
When:7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday, Sunday; 7 p.m. Sunday, through Dec.19
Where:La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, UCSD campus
Tickets:$31-66. (858) 550-1010.
Perk:To celebrate the courage of survivors and educate the community about the flight of African war refugees, the La Jolla Playhouse is partnering with the Alliance for African Assistance, the Women’s International Center, and Invisible Children to donate 20 percent of ticket sales from certain performances to these organizations.