|The damaged women of Ruined.|
I'll even admit that Ruined marks a big step up in terms of craft for its playwright, Lynn Nottage - at least when compared to Intimate Apparel (the only other script of hers I can recall playing in Boston) which was blunt and simplistic by comparison. In Ruined, Nottage juggles far more characters (if not all that deftly), but more importantly, introduces far more complexity into her victimhood politics. There's some credible back and forth about situational ethics, and her central character, Mama Nadi, a madam who services both sides of the ongoing strife in the Congo, is treated with some irony - or at least, not unmixed sympathy. She's nothing compared to Brecht's Mother Courage (her supposed model), but by millennial playwriting standards, she's of some interest. This is more than enough to convince most theatrical observers that Nottage has graduated from P.C. agitprop to genuine art.
But alas, a little voice somewhere in my head tells me that Ruined is still P.C. agitprop; Nottage's simulation of actual art is often so artful, however, that the difference may be meaningless - and probably only a handful of people in Boston would appreciate such a distinction anyhow (there certainly aren't enough of us to fill a house the size of the Huntington; hence, the theatre's dilemma). What troubles me most about the play, though - even as agitprop - is that Nottage doesn't really bring to life the specific hell that is the Congo, because she seems unable to draw convincing male characters (she's kind of like the black, female David Mamet; the opposite sex is a threatening mystery to her). Thus the opposing forces sweeping through Mama Nadi's bordello are largely undifferentiated (although we see lots of sparring and jockeying for power between them). And when and if the playwright allows a male character to break from the pack (as she does once or twice), and actively resist the horrible things that Men do, she seems unable to give him any convincing lines to explain himself.
Now certainly Men do horrible things. But what has been going on in the Congo is SO horrible - even by masculine standards - that it cries out for some kind of explanation, or at least investigation. When a playwright conjures scenes (which I trust are accurate) of men chaining women to trees and gang-raping them, or "ruining" their genitals with sabers, I expect some sort of treatment of this behavior beyond the victim wailing "WHY ARE MEN THIS WAY?" (which is all that Nottage seems to have to say on the subject).
For is the kind of blood bath the Congo has endured really an expression of the essential truth about men? Put another way - is rape in time of war a revelation of man's true nature, or a revelation of an aberration from it? Before you decide, imagine for a moment a play about Nazi Germany that ended with the cry, "WHY ARE ALL EUROPEANS THIS WAY?" and you'll begin to appreciate the problem I have with Ruined; we don't think of the history of the concentration camps (or, say, the genocide in Rwanda), as telling us the basic truth about mankind - so why should we feel differently about the Congo? In a word, the horrors there are embedded in some kind of context that Nottage never makes clear - the men there may not "be" this way, but got this way, somehow; yet neither her women nor her men ever explicitly ponder their political or moral circumstances (again, this ain't Brecht).
But to be honest, I'm not sure Nottage is really all that interested in the Congo per se, or the ethics of war, either - and at any rate, she seems pretty disinterested in the atrocities that have been endured by the men of the region. Indeed, we get the distinct impression that for Nottage, the suffering of women counts more than that of men - and that the savagery reigning in the Congo simply offered her a chance to pound home her thesis that rape is the masculine norm with a more intense palette than usual.
And Nottage certainly knows from intense. She's the kind of playwright who tops herself in a scene in which a scimitar is about to be thrust into a struggling woman's vagina by having another woman, pouring blood, stumble onto the scene after a botched self-abortion. (You're glad she stopped there, just short of Bret Easton Ellis, in the vaginal-torture sweepstakes.) But oddly, Nottage also seems to want to show the audience a good time (Hey, we want to sell some tickets here!, you can almost hear her thinking) - so the mayhem is often interrupted by dances and songs, and she wraps the show with an improbable shot of uplift. I have to admit, however, the audience seemed to like this curious format; they seemed to appreciate the fact that although the point of the show was that sexual violence was the norm for men, at least that wasn't like a total downer.
If you haven't guessed by now that I found the whole extravaganza rather strange - well, I found the whole extravaganza rather strange. BUT, if even one person who sees it becomes sensitized to the ongoing trauma in Africa, then Lynn Nottage has done some good. And you can't argue with the quality of the Huntington's production (mounted in cooperation with the La Jolla Playhouse and Berkeley Rep). Liesl Tommy's direction was taught yet detailed, and Tonye Patano delivered an award-worthy performance as the hearty, hard-bargaining, Mama Nadi. She was matched, however, by the trio of women playing her demoralized (or mutilated) charges: the sweet-voiced Carla Duren, the heartbroken Pascale Armand, and particularly the live-wire Zainab Jah (who I believe has the makings of Cleopatra in her) were all just about note-perfect. The men, as noted, had far less to work with, but at least Oberon K.A. Adjepong (at right, with Patano), skillfully managed, as one of the rare sympathetic Y-chromosome bearers on stage, to make his part more believable than perhaps the playwright deserved.