Dallas — In the middle of a brutal and years-long civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mama Nadi runs a well-stocked bar and brothel in a small tin mining town where rebels and government soldiers alike can get a drink, grab a feel on the dance floor or get laid. Just pay up front, leave your ammo on the bar and nobody gets hurt.
“I make the rules here,” Mama tells her girls and the mélange of soldiers, miners and mercenaries who enter her hard knocks oasis on the edge of the rain forest in Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, which premiered in 2008 at Chicago’s Goodman Theater. Now the Pulitzer Prize-winning play is staged in a powerful and intimate co-production of Echo Theatre and Denise Lee Onstage at the Bath House Cultural Center. Pam Myers-Morgan directs her first-rate 18-member ensemble with naturalistic style and the pulse of beating drums.
Who makes the rules outside Mama’s Place? And what about the young prostitutes and barmaids who work for Mama Nadi (a fiercely maternal Lee in lioness mode) in her boldly desperate enterprise? In Nottage’s Intimate Apparel and By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, forceful women with dark pasts struggle to triumph over exploitative social and institutional forces. In Sweat, the playwright’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner, which closed on Broadway in June, two working-class women in a Rust Belt town are driven apart by economic out-sourcing and searing racial tension arising from sources they can’t control.
Here, surrounded by a useless government and men who make war by raping women in the flesh or by bayonet, Mama takes in two new girls, Salima (Kristen Bond) and Sophie (Whitney LaTrice Coulter) at the urging of Christian (Tyrees Allen), an upbeat salesman who delivers Mama’s booze and chocolates. Sweet-natured Christian, who is clearly sweet on alluring, independent Mama, implores her to take in the raped and “ruined” girls whose own families threw them out as dishonored.
Mama reluctantly takes the “damaged goods,” although she makes it clear this is a business deal. Mama provides food and shelter and the girls can sing for their supper, or crawl onto the laps and into the beds of the paying customers. “If things are good, everyone gets a little,” she tells them. “If things are bad, Mama eats first.” Protection comes at a price, and everything has a price in this bitter landscape where ethnic and ideological conflicts are less an issue than who profits from the minerals used in cell phone manufacturing.
Nottage interviewed hundreds of women in researching the play, and the reality and pain of their stories is forcefully conveyed, especially through the voices of Mama’s newest refugees. Despite the savagery the young women have suffered, they recall joyful moments in their past, or they manage somehow to envision a future where they are miraculously, or medically, made whole again.
Linda Blase’s string-of-lights lighting design and Clare Devries’ atmospheric set, constructed of tin roofing, wooden beams and a well-worn bar and dance floor stopping right at the edge of the Bath House’s intimate playing space, bring us right into the lives of the characters, as they plead and rage and sing and dance and console one another in this rich, evocative drama.
Lee’s Mama Nadi is a force of nature. She commands muddy soldiers and cajoles dime store generals with a wit born of desperation and hard-honed survival skills. She scolds her working girls in one breath and gathers them to her ample bosom the next. She’s a feckless businesswoman who maintains her cool through courage and a gallows sense of humor, and a beautiful woman who keeps all men at arm’s length. Bullets may be flying outside, but Lee’s Mama settles in with her three-man band, directed by Neeki Bey, and has everybody laughing and happy for a brief moment as she sings a sexy Afro-pop song in her big mezzo voice. Then the macho war resumes.
Coulter’s Sophie blooms throughout the evening, from a terrified, nearly lifeless and “ruined” teenager to the brothel’s smart girl, helping Mama with the accounts, singing for the customers with spirit and a sudden playful merriment, and giving voice to the other girls’ concerns in their gossip sessions.
Bond’s Salima is gripping in her recollection of her hideous gang-rape by soldiers, as her baby cries beside her, “until she no longer screams.” Kyndal Robertson, a seductive dancer in all the bar scenes, is sexy and funny as Josephine, the brothel “pro” bragging about being the “village chief’s daughter.”
Allen’s handsome, effervescent Christian establishes a vital humanity from the time he enters Mama’s bar. Whether he’s listing goods to deliver or flirting with Mama, he is humorous, light-footed and eager to please. He chugs a Fanta soda and waltzes his niece Sophie around the floor. His seemingly hopeless adoration of cynical Mama gives both characters an energy and personality beyond that of mere victims of political circumstance.
The music plays and the war goes on, and the characters gather round each other in the aftermath of disaster or the embrace of endurance in Myers-Morgan’s astute, rhythmic direction.
Be warned: Mama and her girls will break your hearts and win you over before you leave her bar, a place battered by destructive militia but restored by a fierce and loving female will.