Lynn Nottage’s play, RUINED, about the lives of women attempting to survive in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo is profoundly moving in its portrayal of the twisted remains of humanity in this African nation that Time magazine referred to as “among the worst places on earth.” Three years ago, Anderson Cooper presented a video report on 60 Minutes entitled; “The War Against Women,” which documented the heinous atrocities that have been taking place in this region of the world for more than a decade. The focus in RUINED is on the determined spirit of these women to somehow survive and transcend the brutality of the senseless violence that has claimed millions of Congolese lives.
RUINED truly is triumphant in its story-telling. After opening in 2008 at The Goodman Theater in Chicago, the play moved to the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2009, and has received much acclaim through the following awards: the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play; Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Play and Outstanding Music for a Play; the Outer Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play; two Lucille Lortel Awards, including Outstanding Play; and four OBIE awards, including Best New American Play and awards for the New York Cast members. Currently a film version of the play is in development.
The action of the play is set in a bar and brothel located on the edge of a rainforest near a small mining town. The bar is known as Mama’s Bar and is owned and managed by Mama Nadi, played with great courage and sensitivity by a superbly talented actress, Heather Alicia Simms. Mama Nadi keeps her business afloat through a policy of non-discrimination; all miners and soldiers, regardless of which warring faction they side with, are welcomed as long as they respect her rule requiring them to check their bullets at the door and to enter with the intent of having a good time.
A long-time frequenter of Mama’s bar is Christian, a traveling poetry-sprouting huckster who has brought to Mama Nadi two young women, hoping she will take them under her wing. Oberon K.A. Adjepong is magnificent in the role of Christian as he struggles to stay on Mama’s good side while talking her into taking on two more mouths to feed. With a box of Belgian chocolates and a two for the price of one deal he manages to place both Salima and Sophie with Mama, adding that Sophie can both serve as her accountant and bar singer.
While the subject matter of RUINED is quite serious, there are several beautiful African folk songs performed by Keona Welch who plays Sophie, the young girl with nowhere else to go and who, like the other girls in Mama’s saloon, has her own story of victimization. The musical numbers in RUINED provide a very special element to this drama in that they evoke special feelings that reach into the souls of the characters. In addition to several songs performed in the regional Soukous style of Congolese music, there are also captivating dance numbers performed with great passion by Chandra Thomas who, as Josephine, delivers a stunning portrayal of Mama’s go-to girl.
As the play progresses we are introduced to soldiers, a white war profiteer (Mr. Harari) played by Paul Meshejian, and we are drawn into the compelling stories of each of the women now living under Mama Nadi’s roof. Erika Rose turns in a powerful performance as Salima, a simple farmer’s wife until she became yet another innocent victim of brutality perpetrated by soldiers moving through her village. James Mangan plays the ruthless Commander Osembanga with a fierce intensity that clearly conveys to the audience the always present danger lurking just under the surface in the interplay between soldiers and the women of the bar who serve them drinks and cater to their other needs.
This is a superbly well-produced, directed and performed drama marking the conclusion of the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s 35th anniversary season. RUINED is staged at the beautifully designed and appointed Suzanne Robert’s Theatre, on Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts. Don’t miss this opportunity to see this exceedingly talented cast in this extraordinary Pulitzer Prize winning drama.
by Lynn Notage
Directed by Maria Mileaf
May 20 – June 12, 2011
Philadelphia Theatre Company
at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre