On Lynn Nottage’s Ruined
Several days before the opening of Ruined at Manhattan Theatre Club, I interviewed Lynn Nottage at a Times Square diner. She conceded:
In 2004 I went to East Africa to collect the narratives of Congolese women, because I knew their stories were not being heard. I had no idea what play I would find in that war-torn landscape, but I traveled to the region, because I wanted to paint a three dimensional portrait of the women caught in the middle of armed conflicts; I wanted to understand who they were beyond their status as victims. I was surprised by the number of women who readily wanted to share their stories. One by one, through tears and in voices just above a whisper, they recounted raw, revealing become battlefields.
I remember the strong visceral response that I had to the very first Congolese woman who shared her story. Her name was Salima, and she related her story in such graphic detail that I remember wanting to cry out for her to stop, but I knew that she had a need to be heard. She’d walked miles from her refugee camp to share her story with a willing listener. Salima described being dragged from her home, arrested and wrongfully imprisoned by men seeking to arrest her husband. In prison she was beaten and raped by five soldiers. She finally bribed her way out of prison, only to discover that her husband and two of her four children were abducted. At the time of the interview she still had not learned the whereabouts of her husband and two children.
I found my play Ruined in the painful narratives of Salima and the other Congolese women, in their gentle cadences and the monumental space between their gasps and sighs. I also found my play in the way they occasionally accessed their smiles, as if glimpsing beyond their wounds into the future.
Going to Africa for a period of several years was one of the seminal experiences in the 45-year-old playwright Lynn Nottage’s life. If you've never been to Africa, some of the crazy stories Nottage can tell you about that beautiful, complicated, turbulent, messy, verdant, tenacious continent will likely suffer in the telling. Her mother and grandmother, who made several trips to Kenya and other parts of Africa, had a powerful emotional and spiritual connection to the continent. Africa lived in her imagination from the time she was two years old, although it took her until she was in her mid-thirties to get there. While her fascination for Africa remains undimmed ("It is home," she says. "You have this distant love for something. You meet it, and it exceeds your expectations"), her romantic notions of embracing the motherland are nevertheless tinged with firsthand knowledge of the sheer brutal reality of its history and politics, its civil wars and cycles of poverty, the powerful legacy of colonialism, as well as the aggressive human-rights abuses she studied while working for four years, straight out of Yale Drama School, as a press officer for Amnesty International.
“The issues that were prevalent when I left Amnesty International were the ethnic killings between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda," she says. "You couldn't get anyone to pay attention. Reporters were like, 'Where's Burundi?' Many people gave lip service. That's devastating when you're shouting and you're seeing these images from the field of bloated bodies floating down the rivers. I had a lot of anger and frustration—feelings of helplessness and hopelessness."
In the summer of 2007 the Brooklyn-based playwright traveled with her husband, her daughter, Ruby, and her father, Wallace, to Kenya and Uganda for a little over a month. It was her second journey to East Africa. She'd been there in the summer of 2004, with director Kate Whoriskey, in search of a play about the lives of refugee women and girls from Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, all victims of war, rape and torture at the hands of armed forces [read her account in American Theatre, May/June '05]. Using a Guggenheim grant to travel around and interview refugees fleeing armed conflicts in Uganda, Sudan, Congo and Somalia, she had originally intended to complete an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children by way of Congo. Perhaps she could transport the action of Brecht's play, set around the Thirty Years' War in 17th-century Europe, to 21st-century Africa. So she made plans to visit, for instance, the all-female Kenyan village of Umoja. Founded 10 years ago by homeless women who had been abandoned by their husbands because they had been raped and thus shamed the community, Umoja (meaning "unity" in Swahili) has since prospered into a sanctuary for young women escaping violence, female genital mutilation and forced marriage.
"I'm trying to find a human way of dramatizing these women's experiences that will provoke thought," Nottage says when I spoke prior to her second trip. "The stories of these refugee women running away from rape and domestic abuse are so graphic, so heart-wrenching, that it will be difficult for people to spend two hours hearing them in a two-hour play. It was emotionally difficult for me to hear when I interviewed over 15 women in Kampala." This work, which she refers to as "my Africa play," was eventually called Ruined. In it, she says, she was careful to draw a line between reality and fiction: "Even though I am passionate about the subject, the play won't be testimonials from these women. They told me their stories—they didn't give me their stories—and those stories are sacred. I know the story I want to tell."
In her plays, as in her life, Lynn Nottage is an intrepid traveler. With a keenly perceptive eye and an unerring ear for dialogue, as well as a healthy appreciation for the unusual, the absurd and the hilariously ironic, she will go anywhere and try just about anything to make the theatrical experience full and rewarding. She is addicted to excursions and research, which she blames, in part, for her being so unprolific: Prior to Ruined, the ground on which her numinous reputation stood consisted of only six full-length creations and a memorable one-act, Poof! Five years elapsed between Ruined’s premiere in 2008 and her previous success, Intimate Apparel, her 2003 love-and-corsets piece about an African-American seamstress in early 20th-century New York (it was one of the last decade’s most frequently performed plays in the US). Nottage overindulges herself when it comes to research. “For me that's part of the joy of writing the play,” Lynn said when I interviewed her in 2007. “Take this second trip to Africa, okay? Is that necessary? Would most playwrights go to this extreme to write a play?"
You never know exactly where the immersions will take Nottage's original mind next. One moment her plays routes around in the Brooklyn of the Cold War 1950s (Crumbs from the Table of Joy), and in the next she’s stuck in a hostage situation controlled by demobilized guerillas in a remote village in Mozambique (for Mud, River, Stone). If she's not cavorting in hidden corners with court painters and ladies-in-waiting of the French court of Louis XIV (Las Meninas), she locked inside an East New York apartment a gang of terrorists who blow up an FBI building (Por'knockers). Often her plays pull a bait-and-switch. Possessed by a mischievous wit that she inherited from the maternal side of her family, Nottage lures you into settling in for a comic ride and then jars it with an unexpected shift in emotional tone or fantasy elements that seem to come out of left field. Mud, River, Stone, to pick one example, starts out as a fish-out-of-water satire about a middle-class African-American husband and wife who lose their way somewhere in Africa and land in a wilderness hotel—until harsh reality sets in and they are held at gunpoint, along with a United Nations representative, by a crazed ex-soldier bellhop. (And the wonder of it is that Nottage wrote Mud, River, Stone before she ever set foot in Africa.)
Even Crumbs from the Table of Joy, ostensibly a memory play about a teenage girl and her displaced southern family in post-World War II Brooklyn, disorients. Shot through with heavy political talk, including an allegorical disquisition on black separatism versus assimilation and sharp critiques of puritanical Christianity, this coming-of-age tale momentarily swerves when the a black father marries a German woman who may have survived the concentration camps. (When Daddy tells the outraged black girls to calm down and take a seat, one of them retorts: "Why? She won't be white if we sit down!")
Though at heart a withering satirist, Nottage always goes beyond the external to get to the heart and soul of a place or an era. She always shows a depth of understanding and respect for her characters—usually restless searchers, forgotten people and alienated folks who are trying to fit in or find a connection or are on a quest for identity. In the twisted morality of Ruined, where women are property for example, Mama Nadi, the owner of a bar and brothel in a rainforest in the Congo, takes in girls, most of them rape victims subsequently shunned by their families and villages. The traveling salesman, Christian, is one other such lost soul. He spouts poetry; he’s a teetotaler; he brings Mama Nadi Belgian chocolates. At the start of Ruined, Christian brings her two waif-like women, victims of sexual violence, to work as prostitutes.
A poetic purveyor of missed and made intimacies, Nottage has a crush on strange romantic pairings as narrative devices; they're practically a sine qua non of her small but sturdily cantilevered body of work. She loves to pair odd couples. And sometimes her infatuation for odd couples results in laughable hookups and ill-fated affairs, as when Undine, the high-powered flack of Fabulation, spirals from the ghetto arms of Mo' Dough, a gangsta rapper with gold teeth and progressively twisting baseball cap; to the errant affections of Hervé a swarthy Argentinean gigolo who eats crudités and knocks her up only to snatch all her money and abandon her; and finally to the sweet aspirations of Guy, the Brooklyn ex-addict she meets in drug therapy. More frequently, as in Crumbs from the Table of Joy and Las Meninas, Nottage's unlikely lovers fly in the face of racial, social and sexual conventions after having been flung together by the caprices of history or politics: the God-fearing black father and his new German refugee bride in the former play, as well as Queen Marie-Thérèse of France (the wife of Louis XIV) and the African dwarf Nabo in the latter, are nothing if not mismatched souls who discover each other in moments of desperate need, estrangement and lonely vulnerability.
Few American dramatists aspire to such a panoramic view of the world or manage it so engagingly. Curious and imaginative, subtle and intricate, each Nottage play is richer and more incisive than the one before. Hers is not just a world of incident, intrigue and adventure but a cartography of complex human interactions that sardonically displays the outward sheen of life's absurdities but is capacious enough, in performance, to let its underlying dignity shine through.
What were other U.S. playwrights writing around the time Ruined emerged? Perhaps not coincidentally Ruined premiered during the same months that Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, became president of the U.S. During the last two years of the first decade of the 21st century, when George W. Bush was the outgoing president, the United States saw a surge of Iraq-themed plays and anti-war dramas (both fictional and documentary), a striking majority of them written by women. So darkly conflicted and acutely complicated were Americans’ views of their own recent history that the space had opened up to allow for direct comments and painful examinations of real-life events—if not on the commercial venues, then at least in relevant theatres across the country. Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue used the motif of a fugue to trace the legacy of war through three generations of a Puerto Rican family, in particular a 19-year-old marine just back from Iraq. In the third part of Passion Play, which debuted at the Arena Stage in D.C., Sarah Ruhl’s dramatic triptych about the dramatization of the story of the crucifixion of Jesus in the Christian bible, an actor playing Pontius Pilate is a Vietnam War veteran who lives with post-traumatic stress syndrome. In Ellen McLaughlin’s Ajax in Iraq (at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge), a contemporary twist on Sophocles’ Ajax, referencing the real-life experiences of veterans in the two World Wars and Vietnam, with the Greek goddess Athena narrating two stories about military suicide, betrayal and sexual assault. And in Prophecy, Karen Malpede attempts to dramatize how young soldiers “come home traumatized, guilt-ridden, afraid” through the story of a failed actress who was once active in the anti-Vietnam War movement and is now confronted by an acting student whose traumatic experience in the Iraq war triggers awful memories from the recent past. This new crop of Iraq war plays—all issuing from the pens of American writers (including men as well)—attempted not so much to offer theatergoers only a raw and unfiltered look at the troops’ experiences on the frontlines. Instead they aimed to explore, question and assess a whole range of complex truths, expressing the views and stories of the disenfranchised, the ill informed and the politically weak. These plays gave audiences room to experience current events emotionally and to reflect intellectually on the falsities and constructed-ness of ideological language itself.
Amid this milieu of partisan upset, intense re-evaluation of core American values and a major political transition in the White House that began with a closely fought contest for a viable Democratic candidate, Lynn Nottage’s Ruined premiered first at the Goodman Theatre of Chicago and then later at the Manhattan Theatre Club, both under the direction of Kate Whoriskey. But while anti-Iraq plays vented feelings of ideological upset and political helplessness, Ruined dared to take up the cause of the global voiceless from outside U.S. boundaries. With a right-wing president at the helm, our list of grievances has been large and embarrassing, but as Americans we always had an option: we could throw the bums out. On the other hand, sexual violence against women as a side effect of civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the kind of subject most of us read about in a Nicholas Krystof column in the New York Times or watch on a CNN report. We shake our heads in horror before moving on. Here is a play about gender inequality that transcended such issues as pay differentials and glass ceilings and old-boy networks—the stuff we Westerners got anxious or angry or organizing tea-parties. Here is a drama about a phenomenon (the violation of African women’s bodies) that is so extensive, so common, so entrenched as to be perpetually old news even while it is happening. And unlike other recent U.S. plays about conflict zones (such as Eve Ensler’s Necessary Targets, about the Bosnian conflict, JT Rogers's The Overwhelming, about the Rwandan genocide or nearly every American play about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), Ruined does not depend on American characters as narrators, as journalistic protagonists or a means of entry. Her script, in director Kate Whoriskey’s scrupulous production, trusts audiences to become acclimatized to the surroundings and circumstances on their own. Against all evidence to the contrary, Nottage’s dramaturgy even dares to offer instances of humor and glimmers of hope. Ruined takes up a cause through the un-chic dramaturgy of tragicomic naturalism: Out of the despair and the horror, the play immerses the audience in a foreign milieu but which is not wholly exoticized as “the other.”
Ruined takes place entirely in a nightclub/brothel in the Congo and none of its richly drawn characters was an African-American. Nevertheless, Ruined earned the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, normally reserved for plays by an American author, “preferably original in its source and dealing with American life.” The Brooklyn playwright Lynn Nottage would be the first to confess that Mama Nadi, the proud and exploitative protagonist of her woundingly eloquent drama, owes its inspiration to Bertolt Brecht’s heroine in Mother Courage and Her Children, but that link is mainly academic, I would like to argue (in reaction to the criticism that has been lobbed at the play in certain corners). It’s a notional connection made up of some nominal similarities, which I feel do not rob Nottage’s play of the attribute of originality. There are many ways to define war, just as there are many ways to violate a woman’s body. War is a persistent disease, and while there are many ways to write about war, the symptoms of war recur and break out, like an opportunistic virus. Ruined neither apes the thematic concerns nor mimics the theatrical strategies of Mother Courage. Although Nottage echoes the name of Ruined’s embittered Mama Nadi after the central character of Brecht’s intellectual epic, that resemblance is merely a tip of the hat, a nod to the playwright’s other aspirations. And the women’s stories she encountered in her research were so specific to Africa, and to that conflict in the Congo, that Nottage didn't need Mother Courage in the end. Indeed, as a tip of the hat to one of the women she interviewed, she also named a composite character in Ruined as Salima. Unlike Mother Courage, who loses her children throughout a drawn-out war, Mama Nadi's maternity is merely figurative. A bar owner and a madam, she need only to stay put in one place in the rainforest, since the war in the Congo keeps tossing these “girls” at her—women in this context are not only less human than men, women are fundamentally the spoils and the discards. Like Mother Courage, Mama Nadi profits by taking no sides in the war but her own—Mama Nadi’s affection for her girls never stands in the way of business—yet Mama Nadi’s actions do not mirror Brecht’s template of a wily woman who loses everything in life.
Brecht wrote a socialist epic about business during a time of war, where goodness and virtues are not rewarded. Nottage crafted a hard-hitting humanist expose about the brutalization of women’s bodies during the decade-long armed conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ruined takes up the cause of oppressed women. Eastern Congo is called the “rape capital of the world.” The United Nations estimates that 200,000 females (from infants to old women) since 1998 have been sexually assaulted by various militias, government troops—even the United Nations’ own peacekeeping forces that are there to protect them. Ruined invites us to bear witness to the densities and complexities of a situation, the result of a toxic blend of ethnic rivalries, fallout from a colonial past, fighting that continues though the war has officially ceased, greed for minerals, a corrupt and ineffective government and entrenched cultural attitudes. These are the brutal repercussions of what Jan Egeland, the former United National undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, called recently “one of the biggest conspiracies of silence in history.”
To expose this conspiracy, Nottage moves as far from Brechtian strategies as possible—she strives not to distance us from its subject, sexual violence. A seamless synthesis of social-justice politics, edge-of-your-seat suspense and uncommon love story, Ruined brings audiences emotionally closer to the realities of a region where women have been violated and mutilated with sticks and bayonets by soldiers, where families have driven rape victims from their communities, where sexual torture has resulted in sterility or infection or death. At the same time, Ruined sustains, with as much depth and humor as Nottage could muster, the aspects of dignity, integrity, sensuality, earthbound simplicity and most emphatically endurance that she and director Kate Whoriskey found during their two trips to refugee camps in Uganda, Rwanda and other parts of Africa in 2004 and 2006. Nobody talks politics in Mama Nadi’s bar and brothel. Soldiers must unload their weapons before being serviced. In a rich land full of gold and copper and minerals, with Sudan looming to the country’s north and shadowy nightmare of Uganda and Rwanda to its east, takes no sides but her own, Mama Nadi’s bar is a haven of escape and respite for rough-handed miners and drunken soldiers. If through the course of the play the nightclub is not always a sanctuary for peace, that’s because wars don’t pause to notice who's declared what place remains a haven, and the promise of sex in Mama Nadi’s brothel can never truly shut out the terrors of war. And although this remarkable play seeks to bring those terrors to our attention, every so often, Mama Nadi’s bar breaks out into infectious music and song. Both Nottage and Whoriskey convincingly flesh out this world, mixing danger with continuing signs of vibrancy. There’s live music and occasional dancing, signs that life goes on no matter how morbid the past, not matter how hollow the foundations are of finding sensual pleasures in an East African oasis.
The essence of the play’s grim story centers on the bar’s entertainment provided by a young girl, Sophie, who sings to seduce Mama’s customers into spending more money. An optimistic traveling salesman pleads with Mama Nadi to take in two young girls, one of whom, Sophie, has been so irreparably damaged that she is considered neither a good fuck for the men nor a meal ticket. Sophie, it turns out, was raped with a bayonet and left for dead. She is useless for sex (she is in other words “ruined”), and at first Mama doesn’t want to take her on. Warily, Mama Nadi offers shelter, but the women are required to pull their weight. So the 18-year-old Sophie, the siren too ruined to work as a whore, also becomes the bookkeeper. Sophie's only hope lies in surgery, the money and facilities for which are not even remotely accessible.
The other girl, Salima, is a young wife and mother whose monologue recounting the calamitous but “bright and beautiful” day when she was abducted from her home by rebel soldiers is the heartbreaking center of Act Two. Salima, transferred into Mama's care along with Sophie, considers herself lucky by comparison: Abducted and repeatedly 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 and Salima join Josephine, a sexy, hard-bitten, resigned hooker. The daughter of a village chieftain, Josephine dreams of big-city high life; she raises hell when Salima borrows her fashion magazines.
The nature of the lives these women knew is indicated by their awareness that whoring themselves to rough-handed miners and rebel soldiers is nice work, compared with what they experienced before. With forceful yet matter-of-fact restraint, without being preachy or educational or fashionably in-your-face, Ruined calls attention to the atrocious way that sexual violence is used in Congo, and it is often indescribable. Women and even children are being attacked by multiple men, often in public and in front of their husbands, kids and neighbors. After the rape, the perpetrator sometimes fires his gun into the woman’s vagina. The purpose is not just to abuse women, but also to destroy the Congolese community and to traumatize and humiliate people. Armed groups use rape to force civilians to leave mining areas so they can exploit the illicit but lucrative trade in minerals. Specifically, armed groups are profiting from the mineral coltan, which each of us rely on daily to power our electronic devices (80% of the earth’s supply of coltan, a mineral crucial in the making of video games, cell phones and computers). The Democratic Republic of Congo is rich with mineral deposits but it’s armed groups, not the ordinary Congolese people, who benefit from this wealth. The word “ruined” carries with it the implication of spoiled and useless, rendering these victims the objects of shame and rejection by their villages and families alike. This process both literalizes and culturally endorses the idea of blaming the victim.
Trapped in the fear-ridden illogic and dense moral thickets of a hellish war, Mama Nadi thrives. Hers is an act of defiance waged not just over women’s bodies but over the ruined body of the Congo herself. “Love is too fragile a sentiment for out here,” says Mama Nadi. But it’s love and humanity that moves Mama Nadi to action by the play’s end—love and humanity give this extraordinary play its vitality. Like a terrible rash, the persistent criticism to Nottage's achievement is that in offering Mama Nadi the possibility for romantic love in the play’s climax, such an ending may be too upbeat for a play about war, rape, and survival. It was frequently mentioned—sometimes not in praise of Ruined—that the Pulitzer board has noted this emotional appeal, characterizing the play as an “affirmation of life and hope amid hopelessness.”
This criticism—that Ruined, emotionally scorching as it is, lacks the ruthless logic of the Brechtian prototype—fails to see how Nottage has redefined femininity in today’s theater. The critics are so obsessed with looking for Brecht’s shadow in Ruined that they can’t see the confident yet individual female artist in front of them, a true dramatic poet of heartbreaking intimacies—a playwright who writes big-hearted political stories about the ways of the world. Yes, without fully giving away the plot, Christian and Mama Nadi do reach some sort of resolution when Ruined closes, but it is a queer denouement because real happiness is so very far from even the dimmest certainty given the bleak realities of the Congo. Whether those two will ever find ultimate peace together, we do not truly know. Righting gender inequality in the developing world, as Ruined reminds us, continues to be the moral battle of the 21st century. And yet, like others who have seen and documented Africa’s horrors firsthand, Nottage offers up in her implacable play a promise of life: Yes, the violence will perhaps continue to roll on, but this does not mean there are no Congolese men like Christian who are nurturing and loving and supportive, African men who will want to form families and relationships with women like Mama Nadi. Humanist to the core, Nottage does not demonize all African men in the play. Nottage seeks to demonstrate that the obdurate is, in fact, assailable—that although the consequences of gender inequality in Africa are so vast and although the statistics those consequences generate are so huge, theatre is still a place that can enlarge our collective feelings of connection and urgency. Collectively spectators can connect with three-dimensional characters, not with numbers, and so Nottage aspires to do more than document in a play what might seem unbearable, outrageous hardships. For the real-life Congolese women and girls, whom Nottage portrays in Ruined, gender inequality is far more elemental. It takes the form of sexual slavery and other forms of bondage; rape and other kinds of physical and mental assaults. It issues from a belief so fixed as to be unimpeachable: that women are less human than men. To argue, as some critics wrong-headedly do, that ruined women of the Congro aren’t capable of change and healing, that these pitiful victims are not worthy of love….might on some deep place most of them believe that women who’ve been ruined are less than human, too?
Let us hope not. Yes, it’s a vicious world. Attitudes change slowly, but they do change. Good intentions are not enough. Sometimes good intentions go wrong. Even so, small steps taken against tragic intractable problems—actions such as writing a play, especially when it is made possible by women themselves—such affirmative steps can be effective. Such small steps are the opposite of a vicious circle, and they can be resounding.
 Randy Gener is a writer, editor, critic, playwright and visual artist in New York City. He recently debuted a photographic installation-art exhibition, In the Garden of One World, at New York’s La MaMa La Galleria and is the author of Love Seats for Virginia Woolf and other Off-Broadway plays. He is the 2009 winner of the George Jean Nathan Award, the highest accolade for dramatic criticism in the United States for his essays in American Theatre magazine, published by Theatre Communications Group, where he is the senior editor. He was named Journalist of the Year 2010 by the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association.