RUINED takes a harsh, ugly look at a harsh, ugly place and time and lingers in your thoughts days after you’ve left the theater. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in April, and it was well-deserved. “I wanted to make {the audience} confront the emotional reality,” writer Lynn Nottage said in published interviews.

RUINED tells the tale of Mama Nadi (Saidah Arrika Ekulona), who runs a bar and brothel in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The DRC is torn by a vicious war, and both miners and soldiers come to drink cold beer, eat a hot meal, enjoy the company of a woman and forget. “People come here to leave behind whatever mess they made out there,” Mama Nadi says. When her supplier and friend Christian (Russell G. Jones) brings her two girls, the beautiful Sophie (his niece) and plainer Salima, she grudgingly takes them in. They have been sexually abused, cast out by their villages and rejected by their families. Their lives have been ruined.

The story of Sophie (Condola Rashad) most directly lends the play its title. She was raped and her genitals were mutilated. She cannot perform the duties of the other women, so instead she sings to the bar’s patrons, telling them to “have another beer.” She chants with a smile, but every step she takes is a painful limp, a constant reminder of her past. Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) was kept as a sex slave for five months. She speaks fondly about her husband, her infant daughter Beatrice and her old life. She longs to go home.

But the play is principally about Mama Nadi. “She’s this powerful woman trapped in this intractable situation,” Nottage says. On the surface, Mama Nadi lives for herself. A war-profiteer, she exploits her girls. “When things are good, everyone gets something,” she tells Sophie, “But when things are bad, I eat first.” But as the play goes on, we see Mama Nadi become a hero for the young women in her care.

Nottage traveled to Uganda to do research for this modern adaptation of Brecht’s Mother Courage, “something the journalists were not doing.” “People become abstracted,” she says, “they become statistics.” She does an excellent job of bringing the horrors of the Congo to life.

RUINED does not ask for your pity. It asks for your rage. It tells you to stand up and say “This must end.”

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