“Do you have a smile?” the madam asks her new employee. “Yes,” the girl answers softly, but she doesn’t display it. So begins the journey into the deepest, darkest disquietude that is Lynn Nottage’s remarkable new play, Ruined, now at MTC in a production from Chicago’s Goodman Theater. The place is a mining town in the Democratic Republic of Congo, once the Belgian Congo and on its way to being anybody’s Congo, cracking apart as rival factions of rebels battle official and semi-official militias. The white colonists, other than missionaries, have mostly fled back to Belgium. The pygmies of the Ituri Forest have virtually vanished, their language kept alive only by a parrot, slumbering under its cloth cage cover at the back of Mama Nadi’s bar, where the liquor supply arrives erratically and the girls, if you don’t use a condom, may give you something you didn’t bargain for.
Mama Nadi (Saidah Arrika Ekulona), bar owner and madam, puts survival ahead of everything. As long as she gets paid, she cares no more for the political jargon the rival factions spout than for the vanished pygmy’s half-dead parrot. Nobody talks politics in her bar, and soldiers must unload their weapons before being served. In a rich land full of gold and copper, scarred by what people sometimes call the “African World War,” with Sudan menacing to the country’s north and shadowy nightmares of Uganda and Rwanda hovering to its east, Mama Nadi sees her place as a haven of peace. But wars don’t pause to notice who’s declared what place a haven.
Sophie (Condola Rashad), Mama Nadi’s beautiful but unsmiling new acquisition, is like the Congo in microcosm. A youthful 18, sumptuously attractive and rich in potential—she sings, sews, and does math well enough to keep the bar’s books—Sophie, under this lovely exterior, is all traumas and scar tissue. She has been “ruined”—genitally damaged by the “ungodly things” soldiers did to her with a bayonet. Her friend, Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), transferred into Mama’s care along with her, considers herself lucky by comparison: Abducted and multiply raped by soldiers, rejected afterward by her family and her village for bringing shame on them, Salima still hopes for a reconciliation with her husband. Sophie’s only hope lies in surgery, the money and facilities for which are not even remotely accessible.
While she waits and hopes, the bar’s days and nights slide on, the brutalities inflicted by drunken soldiers and miners blurring into one another. “You’re in the Congo,” says Mama Nadi. “Things slip from our fingers like butter.” Mama Nadi, like Sophie and Salima, has hopes: Her impossible dream is to buy a piece of land that no government can take from her. Her sharp-edged second in command, Josephine (Cherise Boothe), dreams of big-city high life, raising hell when Salima borrows her fashion magazines.
Ruined‘s nominal inspiration is Brecht’s Mother Courage, but the “adventuress” Courage travels with the troops; Mama Nadi, staying put and letting the troops come to her, has equal affinity with Brecht’s earlier rendering of the type, Mahagonny‘s Widow Begbick. The eerie, drifting whorehouse life, coupled with the rowdy intrusions and Mama Nadi’s wearily good-humored way of defusing them, sometimes even evokes the more idyllic atmosphere of the 1950s Broadway musical House of Flowers. Forceful, vivacious, teasingly tough, Ekulona’s Mama Nadi indeed periodically suggests a newly stern, embittered reconfiguration of Pearl Bailey’s Madame Fleur, forced to stare down Kalashnikovs instead of sozzled sailors.
Unlike Mother Courage, whose children are apparently her own, Mama Nadi’s maternity is merely metaphorical. Her “girls” are the waifs and discards tossed to her by the war, her affection for them never standing in the way of business. Where Courage’s rival wooers are a cook and a chaplain, Mama is courted unromantically by two contrasting entrepreneurs (Russell Gebert Jones and Tom Mardirosian), each of whom thinks her business skills would pool well with his. But Mama’s seen too much of male behavior to rush into partnership; being caught in a miserable war does wonders to clarify a woman’s vision. Cannily, Nottage soothes theatergoers’ expectations by giving this aspect of Ruined a “happy” ending, in which nothing really ends and no happiness is guaranteed. Sophie and Salima’s stories end more starkly.
Nottage’s feat, achieved in close collaboration with director Kate Whoriskey, has been to capture, simultaneously, both the place’s drifty, unresisting atmosphere and the deep underlying agonies left behind by the violence that abruptly shoots through it. Seemingly laconic and often placid, Ruined in fact rolls on implacably, building tension that marks and changes its characters. It has the density of lived experience, rare in plays of any era.
Whoriskey’s staging, abetted particularly by Derek McLane’s set and Dominic Kanza’s music, builds on the writing’s richness. All the performances are excellent: Boothe, brashly authoritative, is a revelation; Ekulona, a powerhouse triumph; and Rashad, whose musical and emotional command seem to spring unbidden from her delicate presence, is a major discovery.
Donald Margulies’s diverting Shipwrecked! An Entertainment makes a handy counterweight to Ruined: Its hero’s self-narrated escapades include an extended romance with an aboriginal Australasian woman—the white European male version of tropical life. Louis de Rougemont actually existed; his book, Shipwrecked, has fame of a kind. Margulies lets Louis (Michael Countryman) tell his story without interference, which limits Margulies’s own scope as playwright here, softening the sting of the story’s painful coda and its relevance to our own time.
Instead, through Lisa Peterson’s speedy, ingenious production, Margulies supplies the sheer fun of theatrical storytelling, complete with acrobatic stunts, musical effects, and the inventiveness of two supporting actors, Donnetta Lavinia Grays and Jeremy Bobb, who have to embody everything from a dog and a parrot to an old sea captain and Queen Victoria. Countryman, a fine actor usually trapped in drab secondary roles, seizes this leading-man opportunity with irresistible panache; Grays is heartfelt as his aboriginal love; and Bobb makes such an adorable dog that I’d adopt him as a pet myself if I thought Equity and the ASPCA would approve.