“Ruined,” a play by the award-winning playwright and MacArthur grant winner Lynn Nottage (showing Jan –May 10 off Broadway at the New York City Center), has received many rave reviews since its debut in Chicago and its opening in January in New York. Perhaps more importantly, in terms of the play’s future chances on Broadway and beyond, the play has been filling the theater. Its original run has already been extended several times, from March to April, and now to May 10.
The story is about the brutality of life in a small mining town in the Congo as the civil war reaches into a brothel run by Mama Nadi (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) and affects her “girls,” her patrons and herself. Mama’s main attraction is Josephine (Cherise Booth), an athletic, enticing daughter of a village chief. But as the story unfolds, two more girls are added, when Christian (Russell Gebert Jones), a Fanta-guzzling salesman who customarily brings treats and hard-to-get necessities into the brothel for Mama Nadi, comes with his own niece, Sophie (Condola Rashad, making her theatre debut), who has been raped with a bayonet, hence “ruined” and rejected by her family and her tribe, and Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), a young married woman who was abucted from her home and whose infant daughter was murdered by the attackers. He pleads with Mama Nadi, a woman tough enough to earn a living servicing men on both sides of a civil war, to give them a home.
The very weightiness of the story line makes this play sound like something one “ought” to see, but not something that one would certainly enjoy or want to see as entertainment after a hard day of work. I admit that such thinking kept me away at first. It needn’t have. Rest assured: What has kept theatergoers coming to see “Ruined” is not its politically correct and timely topic—rape as a weapon in a still unresolved war in Africa. Nor is the fine ensemble acting completely responsible, though it is surely a contributing element in the play’s success. What accounts for positive public response so far is that as an experience of theater, the story and the production provide not only riveting drama, but a satisfying experience of theater and an uplifting ending.
I didn’t expect the humor or the poetry or the music and singing that I found. I did expect good dialogue, shouting, dancing, tears, and physical violence—all of which are also part of the play. Most of all I was surprised by the depth of the display of love and humanity, which is shown by all the main characters in different forms and in different constellations. After all, even amid the most dehumanizing of conditions, people remember, interpret history, remake themselves, survive, dream, hope, show tenderness, reach out and do the best they can. Watching it can be almost exhilarating.
If you can’t get a ticket before the May 10 closing, look for the play “Ruined” to turn up later either on Broadway, in a film or a televised version or in regional productions around the country. This play just might prove as resilient as its characters, who haven’t actually been ruined at all.
Karen Sue Smith