Monday, January 24, 2011

Lynn Nottage's civil war of the sexes

The damaged women of Ruined.
I've been dragging my feet over reviewing Ruined (now at the Huntington Theatre) because . . . well, because the horror of the situation it accurately presents made me feel a little guilty about not liking it more. Plus even I'm getting a little tired of my pointing out the artistic flaws in shows that everybody else has decided are awesome.  And what's the use of analyzing Ruined at this point, anyhow?  It's already won just about every prize there is to win (although how it nabbed a Pulitzer, which is supposedly reserved for plays 'about American life,' I've no idea). [Correction! It turns out the Pulitzer rules state it is meant for plays "preferably about American life."]  And I have to admit that the play is big, and complicated - and undeniably powerful, at least in a sensational way.  To most critics, that makes it a slam-dunk.

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.


  1. " millennial playwriting standards, she's of some interest."

    Caught you again, Tom!

    Lynn Nottage was born in 1964, which based on your reckoning, makes her either a late Baby-Boomer or an early Gen-Xer. The Millennials come later.

  2. Not so fast, Ian, I think I have a little wriggle room here. There may be a minor work or two from Nottage that dates from the late 90's, but she only came to attention in 2003, with "Intimate Apparel." She may be late Gen-X personally, but artistically she's early millennial.

  3. But by that standard doesn't that make Tony Kushner a Gen-Xer (despite his being a Baby Boomer) the first part of Angels in America came out in '92? (Fair enough that he had been fairly prolific in the preceding decade.)

  4. Well, maybe Tony Kushner IS a Gen-Xer; it's hard to lump him with the Boomers, isn't it. The point is that style and period may be more important than birth date. Cezanne, for instance, was almost exactly the same age as Monet, but we don't think of them as being of the same artistic generation.

  5. But isn't it quite normal for the pre-eminent "voice of the generation" to be, demographically speaking, of the prior generation. Thinking of Baby-Boomer idols who fit that role, say John Lennon or Bob Dylan, we're talking about members of the "Bomb Shelter Generation" or "Silent Generation" (the generation of Stoppard and Pinter theatrically speaking) likewise, when Xers are first beginning to enter professional theatre, the rising star who is writing exciting new literature for the stage is a Boomer.

    Sorry to say, it might not actually be the Millennials who are are the cause of your disappointment, but my generation: the Xers.

  6. Okay, but aren't you agreeing with me now that Lynn Nottage counts as "millennial", if we think of it as a cultural phase of playwriting, regardless of the age of the person DOING the playwriting? I'm not always trying to diss twenty-somethings, you know.

  7. Oh, you can dis anyone you want!

    Our only argument is whether one should label the playwright by their own generation or the generation that happens to be in their twenties when the playwright comes to prominence (and as I pointed out, even with pop music that those two don't always coincide.)

    There is definitely a cultural phase (as you put it) in the theatre right now, but outside of the fringe scene, few of the major players are going to be Millennials.

    My impression that the folk who are making the decision to produce Nottage's work (and give her all the major literary and dramatic awards) are likely Boomers and other Xers. To the extent that the 20-somethings may (or may not) admire Nottage is going to have to do with the artistic directors who have been promoting her work over the last decade or so.

    The sort of political correctitude that you rightly identify to be hurting American art (the refusal to ask serious moral questions as you point out) may be popular with Millennials, but it was also popular when I was in college but we were getting that from our professors who were generally Boomers and Silent-Generation types with maybe a couple of Greatest Generation types approaching retirement.

    (So I guess you could say that I think the cliché of each succeeding generation rebelling against the tastes of their immediate predecessors is mostly bunk.)

    Now Annie Baker, she is a Millennial.

  8. Uh - okay. I think I see your point, which I take to be something like, "Lynn Nottage is a Gen-X playwright who did not become prominent until the millennial period of playwriting, although her work has more in common with the political concerns of Tony Kushner's generation than the interest in formal experiment and micro-revelation typical of such playwrights as Annie Baker."

    Although even with all that said, by the standards of millennial playwrights like Baker (even though Nottage is not one of their tribe), Mama Nadi is a figure of some comoplexity and interest.

  9. I think you're being a bit hard on Ruined Tom- I get where you're coming from intellectually in your criticisms of it (ie, Nottage focuses on the women in her play as a mouthpiece to the exclusion of all else) but I think it's a minor flaw in what is an otherwise enormously powerful story. I thought this was a great production of a very strong play and one of the best things I’ve seen at the Huntington. As you yourself admit, the play is big, complicated, and about an enormously horrifying situation. So while I see what you propose as an intellectual argument about the plot, (or at least I think I do- you're looking for a more universal statement about humanity as it relates to the Congo, rather then one viewed through the narrow lens of gender violence during wartime) I’m just not sure how it would be possible to present the story with the balance you'd like to see - I almost think Nottage would need another whole play to do it in. I do think this is the best thing she’s ever written- certainly much stronger then Intimate Apparel which I thought never quite paid off dramatically despite being having some interesting storytelling and shadings.

    As I see it, there's really no escape here. Metaphorically speaking, I think the title says it all. Ruined. The world that the characters live in, their lives, their families, their hopes and dreams- all of it ruined. And nobody in the play is immune from this- even the seemingly vicious soldiers and thugs can't escape through inebriation and mindless rutting; at least one of the soldiers (and presumably more) is so traumatized and shell shocked by what he's witnessed that he breaks down in tears after violent, near-rape intercourse. The only ones who actually seem to escape are those who have so immersed themselves in the violence to the point where they are practically soulless and inhuman, which is arguably no escape at all, caught in an endless cycle of brutality and bloodshed. As for the ending, I don't see it as a feel good gloss at all- I'd liken it more to a tragic one, leavened with a bittersweet glimpse of hope and a better possible world that the characters are striving for. Indeed, I found the eventual revelation about Mama Nadi came as no surprise- it seemed more an inevitability foreshadowed from the very beginning. Nothing can give back the innocence, the lives lost, the dreams shattered. Sometimes things are broken and you can't fix them. Life is hard, but they will carry on, as we all must.

  10. Well, we're probably just going to have to disagree about this one, Dan. Because you haven't convinced me. I agree many scenes in the play are very powerful - but basically because the action presented to us at the present moment is horrifying. The overall vision of the piece remains murky because, as I hope I've made clear, Nottage is essentially trying to import a message from our culture into the situation in the Congo, where it doesn't quite fit.

    And while I agree Nottage would have to change her play substantially to transform it into a real work of art, such changes could have occurred within the basic structure she has set up. For instance, how (much more) interesting it would have been if one of the women's rapists had wandered into the bar, or if the husband longing for his wife (now a sex-worker) had actually gotten a scene to express his feelings to her. Nottage likes to keep a subtle wall up between her sexes, however - until the final scene, which I found something of a fantasy (I know you found it convincing). There were other opportunities to expand her dramatic vision that Nottage seemed to bring up, but then ignored; we learned that one of Mother Nadi's girls was once the daughter of a chief, for instance, but this is only presented as another aspect of her victimhood. The destruction of that honor - and indeed, the destruction of tribal structures in general - should be key to dramatizing what's going on in the Congo, but Nottage ignores that dimension of her situation.

  11. If you were to read the Pulitzer Prize rules for drama, you were to see that the operative word is "preferably." So that it doesn't have tp be staged in America. It's just preferably that it is.

    From the Pulitzer Prize rules:"For a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life"

    There are notable exceptions like RUINED. DIARY OF ANNE FRANK is another and it was not original in its source. Nor was MISS LULU BETT.

    Enough said.

  12. My mistake. Thanks for the clarification, Jerry.

  13. You make a good point about a scene that could take place with the husband searching for his wife who is now a sex worker; I actually was waiting for that to occur and was surprised when it didn't. Or for him to realize that his fellow soldiers were complicit in her violation, a loose end that was never really wrapped up. The absence of this however didn’t spoil things for me. I'll give you that there is a certain Grand Guignol quality to Ruined, though I think this is handled in a tasteful way; bear in mind here we’re referring to atrocities which have actually occurred and continue to in the Congo, not the invention of some ghoulish screenwriter. A lesser writer would have attempted to literalize these more, while Nottage keeps most (not all of course) of the horrific violence in the play offstage with things like the stomach turning rapes merely suggested, leaving us to fill in the blanks around what we’ve seen.

    One of the things I really like about the play is that despite the horrifying subject matter the writing doesn't invite a lot of pity for the characters or make them powerless victims. Again, I'll go back to what I see as the overriding metaphor for the play which is the title itself, Ruined. This is a bleak world in which everyone and everything, victim, perpetrator and even bystander suffers with no easy solution in sight. As for the final scene, convincing isn't exactly the right term for my feelings on it. I thought it was an appropriate if bittersweet ending to the whole play which provided a glimpse of hope in a seemingly hopeless situation.

    I probably also feel stronger about the play then you in part due to my familiarity with Nottage's writing. I worked at a theatre which produced Crumbs from the Table of Joy (one of her earliest full length plays) saw a pretty good production of Intimate Apparel directed by a friend whose work I admire a couple years back, and Fabulation was being done for the first time next door to us at Playwright's Horizons where we also were rehearsing when I was with the Westport Country Playhouse. I may have even met Nottage at one point during that summer but I can't be sure as I don't distinctly remember it occurring. I certainly interacted with cast and crew members from that production daily during that time period so it's quite possible. So I have some sense of her arc as a playwright, a great deal of respect for her writing and am confident in saying Ruined is her best work yet.

  14. Well, you seem very taken with Nottage's careful handling of her violent material. I can agree with you that far. I have to disagree, however, about that "powerless victims" thing; Nottage's women are generally powerless victims. And her one character WITH power - Mama Nadi - isn't questioned as deeply as she should be (compare with Mother Courage; or compare with how Nottage would no doubt have treated a male brothel keeper). I'm glad you can see that Nottage dodges one of the climaxes his structure seems to be moving toward - but I think you're missing the fact that she actually dodges almost EVERY climax her story is moving toward. The play is largely thematic loose ends, really, ,with just a set of political assumptions to bind them together. Sorry to have to point that out, but it's true.