by Thomas Dooney
Ruined is being given its regional premiere at TheaterLoft in an admirable production by Ujima Theatre Company. Artistic director Lorna Hill should be credited for securing Lynn Nottage’s script to share with Buffalo audiences. She has also fostered an ensemble worthy of further encouragement in which there are several standout performances. This thought provoking and emotionally driven drama, lends proof to the international credo, “Rape its women and you rape a nation.”
The title refers, most directly, to Sophie, an 18-year-old who is sent by her uncle to Mama Nadi. Mama runs a brothel in the depths of the war-torn Congo. Pretty as she might be, Mama first refuses Sophie because the girl is “ruined”, having been raped by soldiers with a bayonet. Mama reluctantly accepts the girl in a two-for-one deal.
Ruin is the gist of this story. All the women at the brothel are ruined physically, spiritually or otherwise. But then so are the soldiers, the men who are clients there. These are the daughters and sons of simple farmers forced into outrageous service.
Similarities to Brecht’s Mother Courage and its title character have been widely published. The comparison is superficial, dismissible really. Both “mothers” make their living off transient soldiers. Courage surrenders her own children as the toll along her life’s road. While Courage is without a heart, Nadi will never surrender hers even if it is in ruins. Brecht’s script raises questions, playwright Nottage answers with an understandable reality.
If a comparison must be drawn, there is a greater kinship between Mama Nadi and Rick Blaine from the film Casablanca. Both are entrepreneurs in a conflicted world. It is not that either of their businesses are immoral. They each tend a joint with its own morality, economy and laws. And like Rick’s, everyone comes to Mama Nadi’s.
It is an oasis for Congolese soldiers as well as for the rebel fighters opposing them, for mine workers and the traders making money off of them all. It is the only place within miles to find a cold drink or a friendly face, no matter how forced the smile.
All told, Sophie will be safer with Mama than anywhere else. Mama makes clear to all her girls in good times everyone will get a share, but warns that in bad times Mama eats first. Nadi is the epitome of charm but she has a brutal streak. Her seeming cruelty to the girls are lessons in survival. Some learn.
It may take your ear a moment or two to adjust to the dialect used on stage, however the performances are engaging. Hugh Davis plays a trader caught between the rock of his good intentions and the hard place of his demons. Shanntina Moore and Chantal DuBose, play Salima and Josephine, two of Mama’s girls. Moore relates the story that brought her to Mama’s in a vivid monologue. DuBose languid walk and piercing eyes convey untold stories of their own. Both actresses are equally effective with their respective talents. These are just three of the highlights of a memorable production…the first show of the season that I would be eager to see a second time.
The role of Mama Nadi will soon come to rank with the greatest roles for women in the American repertoire. It is easy to imagine any number of this country’s black actresses tackling to this role (and many more aspiring to play her). At TheaterLoft, Annette Daniels Taylor strides the stage with queenlike command. In spite of the character’s intensity, Taylor centers Nadi with a determined quietude.
Ruined is a solidly constructed script with an especially powerful second act. The writing is good throughout, but Act I drifts into expositional lulls that must be prodded in production. The staging and vision for this Ujima production rate with this company’s best. I’d have to assume the pace will pick up subsequent to opening night, the show clocking in at three hours. Many of the entrances in the play were slow, or even late, except for a critical moment in Act II which was so early to intrude on a very tender scene.
The basic premise of the play is heart rending but Ujima’s production never relies upon unearned sympathy to move us. Audiences are left with a portrait of survivorship…resilient, hopeful and, yes, even beautiful.
Who Might Like Ruined: Fans of Ujima Company will lead the pack to the box office for this show. This would be a fine introduction to anyone who has never seen a Ujima Company production and a opportunity to revisit TheaterLoft for anyone who has not seen a Ujima production for a while.
Ruined (through October 10): starring Annette Daniels Taylor, Zoe Viola Scruggs, Shanntina Moore, Chantal Dubose, Hugh Davis, Donald Capers, Willie Judson, Peter Johnson, Monish Bhattacharyya, Carlton Franklin and others in a Pulitzer winning drama by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Lorna C. Hill for Ujima Company at TheaterLoft (545 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo). ujimatheatre.org or (716) 883-0380.