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Ruined Brings Congo Torment to Life

Huntington stages haunting, hopeful tale of women scarred by rape

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In the slideshow above, see images from the Hungtington Theatre Company’s production of
Ruined.

In 2004 playwright Lynn Nottage traveled to the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of the Congo to hear the stories of some of the tens of thousands of women brutalized in the longest, deadliest civil conflict in modern times. An estimate by the United Nations puts the number of women raped in the East African country at more than 8,000 in 2009 alone, prompting a UN official to refer to it last April as “the rape capital of the world.”

“I wanted to understand who these women were beyond their status as victims,” says Nottage. Several of the women became the basis for the four characters in her 2009 Pulitzer Prize–winning play Ruined, now being staged at the BU Theatre by the Huntington Theatre Company, in residence at Boston University, under the direction of South African native Liesl Tommy.

The play is set in an unnamed Congolese mining town, and its central character, the sturdy Mama Nadi (Tonye Patano), is the owner of a local bar and brothel. Ruined brings together a group of war-battered victims and perpetrators: the garrulous Josephine (Zainab Jah), who finds a kind of refuge in prostitution, multiple rape survivor Salima (Pascale Armand), and Sophie (Carla Duren), a haunted beauty whose violation with a bayonet left her “ruined” in both body and soul.

“I remember the strong visceral response that I had to the very first Congolese woman who shared her story,” Nottage says. “Her name was Salima, and she related her story in such graphic detail that I remember wanting to cry out for her to stop, but I knew that she had a need to be heard.” Imprisoned, raped, and beaten by soldiers, Salima escaped her captors only to learn of that her husband and children had been abducted. Salima’s fate ties in with the play’s climax and an ultimately hopeful note rising from the psychological wreckage of the house of Mama Nadi, portrayed by the actress who played Heylia James on Showtime’s Weeds.

Its people desperately poor despite the region’s wealth of gold, diamonds, copper, and the indispensable cell phone component coltan, the Congo has endured a string of conflicts dating back to the 1960s, says Timothy Longman, a College of Arts & Sciences visiting associate professor of political science and director of the African Studies Center. The International Rescue Committee has estimated that 5.4 million people have died from war-related causes in Congo since 1998—the world’s deadliest documented conflict since World War II. Most succumbed not in battle, but of starvation or disease resulting from the war. Longman, who will deliver several talk-back lectures following performances of Ruined, has visited the region four times on behalf of Human Rights Watch and the U.S. State Department, as well as for his own research. Although rape has been, and continues to be, a toll of war in many parts of the world, the unprecedented number of rapes in the Congo conflict reflects “an overall problem of women’s disempowerment,” he says. He hopes the play, being coproduced by La Jolla Playhouse and Berkeley Repertory, will help bring awareness of what is sometimes called “Africa’s World War.”

The women in her play “do a fragile dance between hope and disillusionment in an attempt to navigate life on the edge of an unforgiving conflict,” Nottage says. Ruined “is the story of the Congo.” Her Congo journey made her realize “that a war was being fought over the bodies of women.”

“Seldom have the consequences of male violence against women—in particular, the act of rape as a deliberate weapon of war…been dramatized with more searing immediacy than in Ruined,” writes the Boston Globe’s Donald Aucoin of the Huntington production. Aucoin credits director Tommy with bringing Nottage’s play “to jolting life with kinetic staging that maximizes” its visceral impact.

In an interview with daily online magazine the Root, Nottage stresses that the play is not history; rather, it’s a contemporary play reflecting events that are happening right now, in the countryside of the eastern DR Congo, where rape survivors face not just mutilation and abandonment, but a high risk of HIV infection. “This play is very much of the moment,” she says. “I felt really compelled to write more quickly because I wanted to have a conversation with an audience who may not necessarily know what was going on, or who does know what is going on but didn’t feel compelled to act.”

On a note of faint optimism, Longman says that the Congo conflict isn’t escalating, although “it’s not getting better quickly enough.” But as women’s representation grows in neighboring African nations such as Rwanda, where females hold the majority in Parliament, there’s a growing awareness of the struggle for women’s rights in East Africa. He points out that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made Congolese women’s rights a major issue. But speaking out on sexual violence doesn’t reflect the need for greater empowerment overall—“It really requires going beyond looking at women as victims,” he says.

Evocative live music is woven into the Huntington production, with performances by drummer Alvin Terry, who performed in the Company One production of Lois Roach’s The Emancipation of Mandy and Miz Ellie. Terry is joined by Nigerian-born guitarist Adesoji Odukogbe, who has recorded with many Afrobeat artists, including Baba Ken Okulolo and Kotoja.

As well as a Pulitzer, Ruined has received an Obie Award, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, a Drama Desk Award, and an Outer Critics Circle Award for best play. Nottage has also won awards for her plays Intimate Apparel and Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine. In 2010 she was awarded the $200,000 Steinberg Prize—the biggest prize in theater—for her body of work. An HBO film of Ruined is in the works. Her new play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, a comedy set in Hollywood, will premiere at Second Stage Theatre in NYC in the spring.

Tommy, who has taught directing and acting at the Juilliard School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, directed Ruined at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Her directing credits include Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Peggy Picket Sees the Face of God, Tracey Scott Wilson’s The Good Negro, and the world premiere of Nottage’s A Stone’s Throw.

Nottage hopes that audiences see Ruined as the story of a country “with an abundance of natural beauty and resources, which has been its blessing and its curse.” Ruined offers a strand of beauty, too. “It’s gritty, it’s violent, but there’s always a glimmer of hope,” says Boston actor Jason Bowen, who portrays Fortune, Salima’s husband.

Ruined runs at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, through Sunday, February 6. Tickets range from $20 to $89 and may be purchased online, by phone at 617-266-0800, or in person at the BU Theatre box office or at the Calderwood Pavilion box office, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston. Patrons 35 and younger may purchase $25 tickets (ID required) for any production, and there is a $5 discount for seniors and military personnel. Student rush tickets are available for $15 at the box office two hours before each performance, and members of the BU community get $10 off (ID required) a regular price ticket. Members of the BU community are eligible for a special subscription rate. Call 617-266-0800 for more information. Follow the Huntington Theatre Company on Twitter at @huntington.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

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