We don’t see Dawn Ursula’s hair until the final scene of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Ruined,” now at Everyman Theatre. For most of the show, Ursula keeps every strand of that hair hidden beneath a series of brightly colored, tightly wrapped African scarves: blue, then green, then gold. As the show’s main character, Mama Nadi, the owner of a bar/brothel in the war-torn eastern Congo, Ursula has to keep a lot of things hidden away from the violent soldiers who are her customers, the sweet-talking salesmen who are her suppliers, and the treacherous women who work for her: her money, her diamond, her feelings, her body.
Ursula, a two-time winner of this paper’s annual Best Actress Award, is superb at revealing the tension such concealment requires. She allows little hints of the romantic desire, tender sympathy, and physical fear that are bubbling inside, but she quickly pulls the curtains tight. Her face becomes a mask, a warrior’s mask with an aquiline nose, high cheekbones, and burning eyes. As a result, when the final scene comes and the gold scarf is pulled from her head, revealing not just the hair but also the aching need within this steely woman, the impact is staggering.
“As things fall apart, all the things she puts on to become Mama Nadi come off. The scarf comes off,” Ursula says. “The earrings come off; the mask comes off, and she’s exposed. I have a mental concept of who Mama Nadi is, but those physical things help me realize it. Even the shoes are important. The young women wear heels, but Mama Nadi wears flats. They enable her to move quickly, but they also say, ‘You’re the working girls, and I’m the proprietor.’”
Ursula is sitting in a yellow armchair in Everyman Theatre’s green room, eating a late lunch of salted avocado slices with herbal tea. She won’t reveal her age, but she does suggest that she graduated from the University of Virginia in the ’90s. She hasn’t become Mama Nadi yet, so she’s wearing a pale-purple cap, a dark-purple jacket, and a white shirt, with large beads on her necklace and bracelet.
When she does put on Mama’s floor-length skirt, African-print blouse, and scarves, it’s like she’s putting on a suit of armor to protect herself not only from the other characters but also from the audience. Because the audience is hostile for much of the play—and she doesn’t blame them a bit. After all, she buys young girls and rents them out to soldiers. She uses the lust of men to cheat them out of gems and chocolates. She punishes her disobedient girls with a severity that takes your breath away.
“There are moments early in the play, when I can feel that the audience doesn’t like me,” Ursula says. “They’re not on my side. There’s a physical energy that comes from the audience through the stillness: certain gasps, flinches, hmmms. When I send Sophie into the backroom with Osembenga, the silence in the room is palpable, I say to myself, ‘OK, that’s the setup and now the payoff will be that much greater.’ I let the silence hang there, because I know what’s coming.
“I sympathize with the audience, but I also sympathize with Mama Nadi. Throughout the play she’s constantly being asked to choose a side, to let her colors fly. One day in rehearsal I asked myself, ‘What would happen if she flew a rebel flag or a government flag outside her bar? What would happen to her and her girls when the other side came through? What would happen if she were nicer to the girls?’ Her business is everything; she can’t get attached to her girls. She tells Christian, ‘Love is too fragile a thing out here.’ I, Dawn, don’t feel that way, but I’ve never experienced what Mama Nadi has experienced.”
Ursula was born in Brooklyn but grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia. She did some acting in high school and college there, but she majored in sociology and got a state-government job in Richmond after graduation. But she kept getting more and more roles in local theaters, and that led to strains with her husband and work supervisors. Eventually she became a full-time actress in 1995, left her husband in 1998, and moved to Washington, D.C. in 2000. She now lives in Bowie with her second husband and their daughter, and she acts in both Baltimore and Washington. She has become a member of Everyman’s Resident Acting Company.
“For an actress, belonging to an acting company is like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” Ursula says. “In a business that’s usually audition, rejection, audition, rejection, to have promised roles is like buying a guaranteed lottery ticket. Plus you get to work with the same actors again and again, and you develop a kind of shorthand with one another. You don’t have to go through that getting-to-know-you with each production; you can get right to work.”
Last year Ursula had the title role in another Lynn Nottage play at Everyman, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.” That show was set not in the modern Congo but in 1930s California, and Ursula was playing the maid to a Hollywood star. Vera wanted to be a movie actress too, but the roles open to an African-American woman were limited. Her ambitions may have been immense, but her options were few: She had to work as a real-life maid to pay the bills, and she had to take the role of a movie maid if she wanted to act at all.
“In Act Two,” Ursula points out, “when Vera goes on a 1970s TV talk show and her character is questioned because of the choices she made, I had this strong feeling inside of ‘You don’t understand the circumstances; I did what I had to do.’ That was the link to Mama Nadi. These black women are put in positions of great strife, and they make the decisions they make in order to survive.”
Dawn Ursula stars in “Ruined” at the Everyman Theatre through March 8.