“They look used. Worn,” Mama Nadi—the complex matriarch of Lynn Nottage’s extraordinary play Ruined—tells Christian, a wheeler-dealer who provides her with merchandise, lipstick, and other sundries. At first, you hope she might be talking about clothes or some other objects, but it soon becomes clear the two characters are haggling over the cost of people. Women, to be precise.
Ruined—currently at Arena Stage in a haunting production directed by Charles Randolph-Wright—takes Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 play, Mother Courage and Her Children, and updates it, making Mama Nadi (Jenny Jules) the owner of a brothel in war-torn Congo. Instead of children, Mama has prostitutes, most of whom have been gang-raped by soldiers and rejected by their families. They turn to her for safety, but this is no kindly protector. As Mama puts it: “I’m running a business, not a mission.”
The two women being haggled over, Sophie (Rachael Holmes) and Salima (Donnetta Lavinia Grays), are victims of a war over Congo’s natural resources. Salima was kept prisoner by a group of soldiers for five months; when she returned home, her family drove her away, saying she must have done something to provoke her attackers. Sophie, whom Mama agrees to take in only after she learns that Sophie is the niece of Christian (Jeremiah W. Birkett), has been attacked so brutally that she’s now “ruined”—or unable to have sex—and barely able to walk. Luckily, she has a little education and a talent for singing, so she becomes bookkeeper and entertainer at Mama’s brothel.
If a play about victims of appalling sexual violence sounds like an unlikely subject for a comedy, that’s because comedy is so rarely used in a transformative capacity anymore. Nottage, who won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2007 and a Pulitzer Prize for Ruined in 2009, pulls poetry out of brutality and humor out of tragedy. Without its hopeful, even joyful spirit, Ruined would be too harrowing, alienating you before you fully engage with the story. Instead, characters such as Josephine (Jamairais Malone), a combative, outrageous prostitute, provide entertainment and comic relief.
Nottage doesn’t go in for the Brechtian distancing technique used to remind an audience it’s watching fiction. Her characters are impossible not to believe, and she accepts the fact that pathos and empathy are a huge part of the play’s power. But Randolph-Wright’s production does employ a very Brechtian technique to disturbing effect—juxtaposing tragedy with exuberant and celebratory live music. Listening to musicians play upbeat African songs at the brothel is distinctly unsettling when you’re watching women shuffle around in fear, edgily eyeing men as they handle the very bayonets that have wounded them.
What ultimately defines this production, and in turn makes it so powerful, is the stellar performances. Jenny Jules—who won the 2011 Critics Circle Award for her portrayal of Mama Nadi at London’s Almeida Theatre—is an unstoppable, enigmatic lead, making Mama as cruel as she is kind, and beguilingly charming in her obstreperousness. Donnetta Lavinia Grays and Rachael Holmes deliver heartbreaking performances as two victims of unspeakable violence: One of Grays’s monologues recalling her attack left many in the audience weeping, while Sophie’s uncomfortable shuffle is a permanent visual reminder of her injuries. The actors playing soldiers—notably Babatunde Olusanmokun as Commander Osembenga and Clifton Duncan as Jerome Kisembe, a rebel leader—embody the kind of sadistic menace that obliges you to question the nature of humanity.
Alexander V. Nichol’s inventive staging in Arena’s in-the-round Fichandler Theatre provides just enough context to complement the actors without distracting from them, and ESosa’s costumes are a visual treat, expressing the tightly controlled but gorgeous personality of Mama and the wanton absurdity of Josephine.
This is a heartbreaking and powerful play, and its effects linger long after the actors leave the stage. But as a reminder of the power of resilience, it’s uplifting, and its message deserves to be heard.
Ruined is at Arena Stage through June 5; tickets ($55 and up) available at Arena Stage’s Web site.