Consciousness raising at the Berkeley Rep continues with Ruined, a powerful look at the lives of women in Africa living in the shadows of war. Running on the heels of Mike Daisey’s Agony and Ecstacy of Steve Jobs it was once again difficult to cross Addison Street after the show without feeling moved by the material and somewhat dirty; that our lives here, dominated recently by the bi-winning Charlie Sheen, are world’s apart from the harsh reality–rape, violence, fear–of civil war in the Congo.
Written with brutal authenticity by Lynn Nottage, Ruined received a Pulitzer prize for drama and has been winning praise since it debuted in 2007 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. She notes that “the women do a fragile dance between hope and disillusionment.” And that’s precisely how director Liesl Tommy and team have crafted this presentation. Despite the bleakest of conditions, hope reverberates throughout. Some times there is joyous song and dance. Other times there is angst as militia, roadblocks, and conflict constrict the women here who are used as sexual objects (their bodies become “battlefields”), then tossed to the road side. Even though the war officially ended in 2002, a slow simmering conflict continues in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Shocking statistic: 5.4 million people have died in that country since the conflict began.
At the center of the remarkable story is headstrong Mama Nadi (Tonye Patano) who runs a small cantina in the middle of the jungle. She asserts, “I am a business woman!” A brothel also figures into the bottom line. Over the years she’s taken in emancipated, destitute girls whose fate would otherwise certainly be worse. Suitor and salesman Christian (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) stops in time to time for a Fanta to escape the heat. Soon, though, the fog of war, and testosterone-charged young militia descend and forever change the world that Mama has created. Rights to property, body, and cold hard cash are all up for grabs.
This is the kind of play where you just know it’s not going to turn out well… that there will be bloodshed, tears, and certainly death. In fact, playwright Nottage traveled to the DRC in 2004 to collect the narratives of Congolese women. I won’t give it away here, but the script transcends cliche and happenstance. After all, it’s based on some sad, shocking true accounts. So expect the unexpected.
The writing and the characters in Ruined: a tour-de-force. The three girls who are prostituted and treated like meat at every turn (Zainab Jah, Carla Duren and Pascale Armand) have depth and are not just superficial instruments. They turn to books and fashion magazines to escape the booze, machismo and chaos around them. Secrets and dreams are later revealed. Commander Osembenga (Adrian Roberts) who might have otherwise been drawn as a one-dimensional war lord is a complicated man, alternating between part-compassion, and part-tyrant.
One thing that struck me as odd at first about the performance: as we were making our way back to our seats after intermission, the fourth wall is momentarily broken.
The cast interacts with the audience, snapping photos on an iPhone, handing out nuts, and dancing in the aisles.
It didn’t seem like that kind of show, and so it caught me off guard.
Later I realized that it had subtly drawn us into their world that much further. While we would celebrate with them to the Congo beats, we would also feel utter dispair when these actors–now seemingly more real and vulnerable than ever–navigate a bloody trail of tragedy and hope.
There is a large ensemble of thirteen cast members. The calibre reminds me of In the Brown and Red Water at Marin Theatre or even Berkeley Rep’s own Coming Home, an equally eye-opening look at AIDS in South Africa.Which is to say, the performances are resoundingly good.
Napa may have the Rutherford dust, but Bay Area theater has Berkeley Rep.
When mama talks, you’d better listen.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
In a co-production with Huntington Theatre Company and La Jolla Playhouse
4.5 out of 5 stars
Written by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Liesl Tommy
Through April 10, 2011
Photo credit: Kevin Berne.