‘Ruined’ Play Finds the Hope in Total War

“Ruined”
La Jolla Playhouse
Through Dec. 19

Eastern Congo has been through two ethnic wars, political ruin and political faction, but these conflicts take a backseat in “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage’s riveting exposition of female strength, now playing at the La Jolla Playhouse.

Despite the word being in the title, no one lays out the meaning of the word “ruined” in Nottage’s play. It’s a euphemism for rape and refers to when eighteen-year-old Sophie (Carla Duren) is sexually assaulted. In a war where women’s bodies are the spoils of victory, Sophie and two other young women find shelter in Mama Nadi’s whorehouse, where militants must cast aside their weaponry to enter.

Mama, played animatedly by Tonye Patano, is the cock-grabbing, business-minded Sue Sylvester of the Congo. She speaks with the conviction of experience and scoffs at Sophie and Salima’s (Pascale Armand) trashy romance novels in which, unlike the real world, “everything is forgiven by a kiss.” Despite her rigid exterior, Mama bears unconditional sympathy for Sophie — an anomaly that goes unexplained until the play’s end.

Mama’s disregard for politics catches up to her in the form of Commander Osembenga (Adrian Roberts). She doesn’t give a damn about the men who walk through her door, and welcomes opposing factions in the Congo’s ethnic war. Osembenga’s discovery that rebels have also been served at the whorehouse leads to a struggle to keep her place safe.

American audiences are not privy to the internal conflict of the Congo, but promises of democracy that the Congolese government doles out at the expense of human lives are achingly familiar (Iraq and Afghanistan, anyone?). But Nottage isn’t interested in political warfare so much as gendered conflict. For her, the female body is its own war zone, an implication made clear when Salima proclaims to the militiamen, “You will not fight your battles on my body.”

The rickety set, designed by Clint Ramos, further underscores the play’s concept of ruins. Adorned with Christmas lights and a vintage Pepsi stand, Mama’s whorehouse is a hodgepodge of decorations. Despite its overly eclectic appearance, the set never changes, providing an anchor in an intense play.

The Afro-beat score provided by the drums of Alvin Terry and electric guitar of Adesoji Odukogbe is less a backdrop than part of the action, becoming the live band that accompanies Sophie’s singing. To pull us further into the atmosphere, the women of Mama’s whorehouse dance into the audience. The smell of cigarette smoke and the sprinkling of French words in the dialogue immerse the play in realism.

Directed by South African native Liesl Tommy, the production demands attention for its large-scale social commentary. Given the play’s handling of abduction, rape, prostitution and botched abortions, thematic intensity is in no shortage. But “Ruined” is still a departure from the grief binge of many dramatizations of Africa.

The play is about hope in a time of struggle. The running gag of unrequited love between Sophie’s uncle Christian and Mama provides comic relief, while the potential of an operation for Sophie, despite its costs, is yet another silver lining. In fact, Sophie croons a metaphor throughout the play that reminds us of the female characters’ tenacity in times of struggle: “Life’s a green mango cracked too soon,” she sings, “but if it survives, it will ripen in the sun.”

Like the women it portrays, “Ruined” evokes sympathy and admiration. Nottage gives a voice to the women of war who, instead of being victimized, find strength in one another. (A-)

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