Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Cherise Boothe, Chris Chalk, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, William Jackson Harper, Chike Johnson, Russell Gebert Jones, Simon Shabantu Kashama, Kevin Mambo, Tom Mardirosian, Ron McBee, Condola Rashad
Upon catching a glimpse of Derek McLane’s impressive sets in Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage I space, it’s clear, even before the curtain rises on Lynn Nottage’s new play Ruined, that audiences are in for a transporting journey.
Surrounding a central clearing, which will soon become a bar, are an expanse of trees, packed densely, seeming to stretch into the distance.
The location is the Congo. The time is now. Nottage’s new drama follows young girls Salima (raspy Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and Sophie (Condola Rashad), who find themselves working at Mama Nadi’s bar in the Ituri Rainforest, Salima as a prostitute and Sophie, who, having been “ruined” by a bayonet, is unable to have sex, as a singing waitress.
Mama Nadi (a towering, bellowing Sadah Arrika Ekulona), who welcomes both nationalist and rebel soldiers to her establishment, soon finds herself caught in a quagmire. Will she leave her bar, which she’s toiled in the service of for her entire adult life, or stay put and continue despite tremendous risks? It turns out Mama’s made of some powerful mettle, but even she isn’t infallible, as her supplier and friend Christian, who sold his niece Sophie alongside Salima to Mama Nadi two-for-one, is quick to remind her.
Nottage, who drew a measure of inspiration for the play from Bertolt Brecht’s indomitable Mother Courage and Her Children and its title character, shows an acute sensitivity toward her characters. Her play pulses with life and with the rhythms of the Congo, which are drummed and strummed out by an on-stage duo of instrumentalists, the luminous Condola Rashad’s sensuous voice singing over the pulse of the music. Rashad’s contributions in paticular are a highlight.
Nottage has said that she hopes the play will raise awareness of the conflicts currently seething in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s a credit to Nottage’s writing, however, that the play never feels didactic. Plays about “issues” can easily become wrapped up in point-scoring or pontificating, but that’s mostly sidestepped here. There are a few moments of drawn out exposition, but it’s more helpful than harmful considering most Americans’ ignorance to current Congolese politics, my own included. Nottage’s play will likely change little or nothing about the dire situation for women on the Congo, but its characters do what good characters should – they speak to us about the truth of their unique situation.
Within the play, the tension that ultimately arises out of the characters’ between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place situation is that between holding onto one’s life at all costs and letting go for the chance for a fleeting grasp at freedom. “If you can’t put it on a scale, it’s nothing,” Mama Nadi tells Christian late in the play, a mantra he finds too cold and calculated.
As directed by Kate Whoriskey, the characters’ gradual transformation over the course of the play is just right; the pacing is perfect. Whoriskey understands the rhythm and music in Nottage’s language, which, like that in August Wilson’s plays, must be respected by a director. If the rhythm isn’t just so, the play can’t build to its crescendo. Thankfully, Whoriskey’s levelheaded direction has just the right forward momentum.
By the end of the play, an audience has been on as many ups and downs as a roller coaster and managed to come out of it with a fresh outlook on Nottage’s subject. They’ve watched two young women come of age and a makeshift family torn apart. It’s a lot for any play to tackle, but Nottage does so with aplomb. I challenge even the most hard-hearted of theatergoers not to be moved by this fine new American play, one of the best I’ve seen so far this season. It’s one I won’t soon forget.