By Lynn Nottage, directed by Barry Feinstein
At Fells Point Corner Theatre through June 3
In preparation for writing Ruined , playwright Lynn Nottage traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and interviewed women about their experiences during the violent civil conflict that has long plagued the country. The stories of some of the women she spoke with are reproduced largely unchanged in the play that resulted. Nottage had planned to write her own version of Bertolt Brecht’s famous 1939 anti-war play Mother Courage and Her Children, but Ruined—a 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama—is very much its own brutal, moving creation.
The Fells Point Corner Theatre is to be commended for taking on such a difficult play, one that—because of the atrocities it depicts—easily lends itself to overwrought performances. Barry Feinstein, who has been directing theater in Baltimore for over 30 years, is responsible. At a recent performance, he introduced Nottage’s play with the words, “It comes from a deep, passionate belief that the world can do better.” Indeed, Ruined has a stronger activist bent than most theatrical pieces, as is perhaps fitting for its subject: a country the United Nations lists as having the worst record of sexual violence in the world, with each militia possessing its signature form of mutilation. And though FPCT’s production is flawed in many ways, in the end it powerfully portrays the deep-seated trauma with which the victims must live.
Ruined is set in a bar/whorehouse in a small mining town in the Congo. (The miners are digging for coltan, an ore used in making mobile phones and other electronic devices.) Tough, middle-aged Mama Nadi (Valerie Lewis) owns the establishment and runs the place with an iron fist: Customers—be they rebel militia or government soldiers—must check their weapons at the door, and while Mama forces her girls to be with the men who want them, she puts up with no violence against them. Mama’s prostitutes are all already victims of violence. Some are married, but have been socially ostracized as a result of being raped or put into sexual slavery. One day a traveling salesman named Christian (Tyrone Requer) arrives with two more girls for Mama’s stable: Salima (Yakima Rich) and Sophie (Cheveé Crafton). It emerges that Sophie, who walks with a limp, has been genitally mutilated by a militia, and is subsequently “ruined.”
“I don’t have room for another damaged girl,” Mama protests. Christian eventually persuades her to take Sophie on as help in the bar, and the complexity of Mama’s character unfolds from there. For Lewis carries the show. Alternately funny and harsh, flirt and harridan, she is a portrait of resilience in the face of unspeakable horror. By the end, despite her sometimes despotic rule, one realizes the whorehouse is a sanctuary for women with only terrible alternatives. And Lewis’ subtle depiction of her deep, subterranean pain stands in sharp contrast to the sometimes melodramatic performances of the other female characters in the production. Where other women—like Rich and Crafton—fall unconvincingly into each other’s arms as they relate the humiliating physical tortures to which they’ve been subjected, Lewis withdraws into herself—and her resistance to touch proves more evocative by far.
Two other performances are particularly worthy of mention: that of Dionne Johnson as the prostitute Josephine and Requer as Christian. Johnson is fantastically bitchy, a depiction of how some women will turn against one another for men, even the despicable kind. With her sexy, voluptuous walk and her breathy baby-girl voice, she is prone to mocking Sophie’s mutilation and otherwise diminishing the women around her. She seems at first to be evil incarnate, until, of course, her own back-story comes out. Requer, a self-effacing poet who spends the whole play wooing Mama, is equally convincing as a good but weak man, powerless in the face of barking, sunglass-wearing soldier-types like the military’s Commander Osembenga (William Walker), who, in a raw display of power, forces Requer to clown around the bar for his amusement.
Exaggerated performances by minor characters unfortunately detract from these standouts. As one theatergoer put it on a recent evening, “Loud does not equal angry.” And while Feinstein, a speech pathologist for the city schools, has managed to get all 19 members of his cast to speak with an accent, not all are successful. Yakima Rich as Salima tends to over-enunciate, as in “picking theee last of theee tomatoes,” drawing the viewer out of the action of the play. And gemstone trader Mr. Harari (Richard Peck) is clearly from some foreign land, but his nebulous accent does not give any clues as to where.
Most damning of all is the African drumming. The production opens with a literal bang, produced by drummer James “Djuann” Ray, and the banging scarcely subsides throughout. The drumming is presumably meant to ramp up tension, but because the beats are so regular and so very incessant, the effect is a leveling one. (If it’s supposed to evoke the maddening, unending nature of civil war, it’s doing the job. But one suspects that is not the intent.) Still and all, the powerful elements of Ruined win out over the occasional flubs. It is a memorable production, and one worth seeing if only because it depicts an ongoing, oft-ignored crisis.