It’s not that Mama Nadi is without feelings; it’s that she can’t afford to indulge them. The only way she can keep her bar/brothel open in the wartime anarchy of the Eastern Congo is by taking no side in the war and by bringing a hard-nosed calculation to every encounter. The main conflict in Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Ruined,” is not the war raging around Mama’s bar but the conflict between feeling and self-interest raging within Mama’s head.
In the terrific new production at the Everyman Theatre, Mama is played by the wiry Dawn Ursula wrapped in the brightly colored prints of Sub-Saharan Africa. She saunters like a queen in her castle: her barroom cobbled together from mismatched, recycled doors and rusty panels of corrugated steel. When Christian (Jason B. McIntosh), the rotund traveling salesman, tries to put her in a buying mood by flirting with her, she snorts in his face.
After delivering his usual soap, cigarettes, condoms, and lipstick, Christian has one more item to sell. He urges Mama to take three of them for the usual price of one, but she insists she only wants one. After much haggling, Mama agrees to buy two. What are these commodities? Young girls.
When she discovers that one of the girls, Sophie (Zurin Villanueva), is “ruined,” her genitals mutilated by soldiers’ bayonets, Mama insists that Christian take her back. No, he pleads; she’s his niece and she’ll be safe here. Only when the uncle offers to throw in a hard-to-get box of Belgian chocolates does Mama agree.
In the Everyman program notes, Nottage acknowledges that she based Mama Nadi on Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage. The notes go on to describe Brecht’s epic theater as “a form of political drama intended to appeal to the intellect, uncluttered by and distanced from the emotions.” Nottage is quoted as saying, “I believe in engaging people emotionally, because I think they react more out of emotion than when they are preached to.”
This is a distortion of what Brecht was up to. His plays are full of emotion, but every time those feelings flare up, they are challenged by the reality of how things actually are in this world. Mother Courage, who sells food and liquor to soldiers during the 17th-century Thirty Years’ War between Germany and Poland, is often joyful, angry, and sad, but she never lets those sentiments distract her from the main concern: staying in business and staying alive. Brecht’s plays, including “Mother Courage and her Children,” are not based on an absence of feeling but on the constant conflict between sentiment and pragmatism.
The same conflict is at the heart of “Ruined.” Amid another war in another country in another century, Mama must also adjust her feelings to the necessities of the moment. She may be angry at the way the soldiers manhandle Sophie, Salima (Monique Ingram), and Josephine (Jade Wheeler), but she can’t afford to lose the customers or to have the soldiers wreck the place, so she distracts them with sweet talk and liquor. She may long for a husband, but she knows no one could run the business as well as she does alone.
The biggest challenge in playing Mama is to convince an audience that one skinny woman could control a barroom full of drunken soldiers, wily traders, and rebellious prostitutes by sheer will alone. Ursula radiates such a force field that not only do Mama’s customers and employees cower before her but so do we in the audience. As a result, the few moments she turns off that force field become moving epiphanies.
The production has its moments of joy when Christian recites his poems or when the whole barroom is dancing to Sophie’s birdlike singing. But the grim reality of war in the Congo is never far away. The valuable gems that a soldier stole from a miner are taken by Mama in trade for a tumble with Salima and then carried off by the unscrupulous white dealer Harari (Bruce R. Nelson). Salima later tells of her gang rape by a troop of rebels and her shunning by her home village in a long, harrowing monologue, spellbindingly delivered by Ingram.
But the horrors of war are not the principal focus of Nottage’s script nor of Tazewell Thompson’s crisp direction. No, our attention is always turned to the question of what Mama must do to make the best of a horrible situation. We may not like the choices she has been given—offering blow jobs to killers or becoming the target of killers—but Nottage never pretends that the choice is something else. And Ursula, in a magnificent performance, makes it clear how much strength is required for such a decision and how much it takes out of her each time.