Dallas — In the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo, women are the most vulnerable victims of the ongoing genocidal wars, which claimed almost 6 million lives since it began in 1996, and continues in unstable eastern Congo.
Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2009, focuses tightly on the women in a small Congolese tin mining town. Phyllis Cicero directs her strong 14-member cast at the Bishop Arts Theatre Center production with rhythmic pacing, balancing the wrenching pain of sexual violence with the primal power of female resilience.
Mama Nadi (Kenja Brown) is a tough and clever businesswoman running a seductively lit bar with an upstairs brothel in the midst of a bloody war in which she refuses to take sides. After all, government military troops and rebel soldiers drink beer and pay for sex at the same rate. Mama simply demands that guests leave their guns and ammo at the door, and enter a zone of no conflict at the edge of the rain forest. That way, nobody gets hurt.
But it’s never that simple in a Lynn Nottage play. In Intimate Apparel and By the Way, Meet Vera Stark and her other award-winning plays, dynamic women with secret pasts and complex veneers are an unpredictable element to be reckoned with.
Mama takes in two new girls, Salima (Fredrina Alexander) and Sophie (Dominique Edwards), brought to her doorstep by Christian, a high-spirited salesman who clearly admires Mama’s hip-swinging independence. He begs her to give these raped and “ruined” young women a chance, since their own families have abandoned them.
“I’m running a business, not a mission,” says Mama, but she agrees to take the “damaged goods.” From the get-go, it’s a business deal. She provides food, bed, and clothing, and the girls furnish the entertainment by which Mama makes a living. Protection comes at a cost.
Rodney Dobbs’ elegant and moveable set design features a roomy bar with colored strings of lights, flanked by a simple room where the girls curl up to gossip and an exterior front of the bar where mostly male confrontations occur.
As the play progresses, and the details of the savagery the women have suffered from soldiers on both side of the civil war are revealed, even shrewd-minded Mama risks her neutrality to protect all her girls. The “ruined” girls’ bodies are the real war zone in this battle, and Mama takes her stand.
Brown’s Mama Nadi is cajoling a general with sweet seductive talk one moment, and forcefully disarming a rowdy rebel the next. Smiling and proud, arrogant and determined, Mama is a kind of center toward which the other women—and many men—gravitate.
Athletic and graceful, Edwards’ Sophie is both strong and vulnerable. She stands up for all the girls, and often sings along and dances soulfully to the Afro-pop on the bar’s radio, a poignant and touching aspect of the production.
Alexander’s Salima is small in stature but explosive when pushed. Her depiction of a young farmer’s wife working in the fields, when suddenly set upon by soldiers and gang-raped in front of her screaming baby is wrenching. Even worse is Salima’s hoarse and sobbing confession that her husband “was too proud to bear my shame but not proud enough to protect me from it.”
Ashley L’oreal Davis is a sultry, funny and sexy Josephine, the brothel “pro” who ends up learning a thing or to from the newcomers.
The soldiers and mercenaries moving in and out of the bar are almost all exploitative, macho chest-beaters, effectively and sometimes comically portrayed by the solid cast. Djoré Nance’s Christian is the exception. Rolling his eyes at Mama or spontaneously dancing when a favorite tune comes on the bar’s radio, he brings a sweet romantic lightness to a play about the brutality of war, especially for women.
By the time the show is done, we’re rooting for Mama and her girls, and applauding their rousing strength and calm endurance. We also applaud a stirring ensemble performance.