Ruined but resilient, horrifying but beautiful

Mar 03

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Oberon K.A. Adjepong (left) and Tonye Patano star in Ruined, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. Below: Carla Duren is restrained by Kola Ogundiran (left) and Okierete Onaodowan. Photos courtesy of www.kevinberne.com

The evil that men do – and have done and continue to do – certainly does live after them. Shakespeare was so right about that. It lives and festers and poisons and leads to more evil.

This is incredibly apparent in Ruined, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play now on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre.

Acts of unspeakable, incomprehensible violence occur, but it’s the echoes of those acts that ring most loudly in this compelling, ultimately shattering theatrical experience. There’s a war depicted on stage, but it’s not the chaotic, constantly shifting free-for-all of militias and government forces in East Africa. Rather, it’s the war waged on the bodies of thousands of that region’s women.

A part of a campaign of terror (and due in no small part to the centuries-old tradition of men in packs behaving like savages) soldiers of all stripes brutally rape and torture the women in their perceived purview.

Taking inspiration from Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, another tale of a resourceful woman surviving in wartime, Nottage gives us the morally ambiguous Mama Nadi (Tonye Patano), proprietor of a jungle whorehouse, where the beer and the orange Fanta sodas are cold and the women are…well, ruined.

To be ruined in this culture is to have been with a man other than your husband – even if that man abducted and raped you. These women, victims as much of their culture as the violence of men, become refugees, and Mama Nadi offers them something of a safe haven.

They get food and a place to sleep. In exchange, they pleasure miners and militiamen, rebel leaders and fast-talking traders. It’s a living – one level of hell traded for another.

Act 1 of director Liesl Tommy’s powerful production is slow to start. The plot doesn’t really kick in until the more emotionally gripping second act, but we get a strong sense of place from Clint Ramos’ set, with the encroaching jungle creeping into the rustic interior of Mama Nadi’s establishment.

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With nine men in the cast overpowering the four women, we immediately feel the precarious nature of the world these women inhabit. On an average night at Mama Nadi’s they are handled like useful garbage, roughly pawed and groped in the better moments and taken offstage for the worst moments. We may not see what happens, but we feel it.

That’s the power of Ruined. Nottage takes her time telling the story – primarily of Mama Nadi and two newly arrived girls, Salima (Pascale Armand) and Sophie (Carla Duren). Each of these women has an unfolding story of violence and resilience, and each of these formidable actors brings the depth and compassion these stories deserve. And boy do we feel the pushing and pulling of their lives

There are scenes and stories in this 2 ½-hour play (a co-production of Berkeley Rep, Huntington Theatre Company and La Jolla Playhouse) that are hard to watch. But then you think about how Nottage traveled to Uganda to interview Congolese refugees and how sharing their stories, as wrenching as it may be to watch them, is nothing, nothing compared to living them.

Such horrors are nothing new in the shameful history of mankind, but these atrocities are happening on our watch. Experiences like Ruined aren’t about instilling guilt in Western audiences as much as they are about raising awareness and inciting compassion.

The wonder of Ruined emerges in moments of beauty – whether in a song performed by Sophie (backed by musicians Adesoji Odukogbe and Alvin Terry), an athletic dance performed by the male patrons of Mama Nadi’s (choreographed by Randy Duncan) or a flash of brave compassion from a surprising source.

In the face of mankind at its worst, there can be sparks of beauty and enlightenment, of fleeting joy amid horror. Those sparks – much like extraordinary pieces of theater – are what we aim for.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Ruined continues through April 10 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $34-$73. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org for information.

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