Saturday, October 17, 2009

Ruined - by Lynne Nottage

was commissioned and premiered at the Goodman Theater in November 2008, co-produced by Manhattan Theatre Club.

The first play of this series that left me crying. Every play I've ever read by Lynne Nottage has left me crying. It is a two act play, six scenes in the first act and seven in the second. It is set in and in the immediate vicinity of Mama Nadi's bar and brothel located in a small mining town in the Democratic Republic of Congo. At the center of the play is Mama Nadi and her girls, particuarly Sophie and Salima, whom she agrees to take on the first scene of the play. Salima has been kept by soldiers in the bush, raped repeatedly and Sophie is 'ruined' - taken by a bayonet. Men pass through the bar, a salesman related to Sophie and in love with Mama Nadi, a diamond merchant and leaders from both the rebel and the government armies. The play gracefully weaves information and stories from the war torn Congo - the mining, the soldiers, the treatment of women, the lack of security, the betrayals, the bribery and violence - throughout its unfolding plot and revelations about the characters.

In the introduction director Kate Whoriskey writes about travelling to Uganda with Nottage to interview women in refugee camps, Congo was not safe for travel. She states that the initial impulse for the play and their collaboration was a notion of adapting Mother Courage using the war in the Congo as a setting. Nottage had been an Aid Worker in the area and was responding to the lack of international attention to this areas on-going bloody war. After this trip:

Lynn was interested in protraying the lives of Central Africans as accurately as she could, and she found Mother Courage to be a false frame. She decided to abandon the idea of adaptation in favor of a structure that was true to our experiences in Uganda.
The structure of the final play is strongly narrative and emsemble. The priciple characters are complex and through the progressions of scenes we learn more and more about their personalities and motivations. There are no simple solutions here. An exception may be the Army leaders who present themselves as big men and seem to believe their own rhetoric, making them unreliable, scary figures who terrify those they are proposing to assist. The inclusion of songs sung by Sophie with words that speak of the abandon longed for by those drinking in the bar and patronizing the brothel, tap into a world beyond the world of the Congo, into a universal longing for oblivion and escape from the terrors of their lives.

Unlike Brecht's desire to maintain a critical distance and present his audience with opposing visions of truth, Nottage has a clear vision of her character's truths and their inability to fit into a this or that structure. Her stated committment is to

celebrate and examine the spectrum of human life in all its complexities: the sacred with the profane, the transcendent with the lethal, the flaws with the beauty, and the selfishness with generosity.
With rich characters, escalating tension, incorporation of song and dance, and a setting that brings the concerns of the play into one place Nottage writes for a stage where the pain and struggles of another place are brought into our theatres and demand attention for the least acknowledged victims of a brutal conflict.

So far my questions have been reflecting on what plays of earlier years have to say to plays today. This is a play of today, the Pulitzer Prize winner, and a play decided absent from TCGs recent list of the most produced plays of 2009-10. Is this because it is a large cast? or because of content? where does it fit in the seasons of those theatres large enough do it justice? (or am I just revealing my ignorance of how this all works and it's going to finally get it's Broadway run?)

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