Ruined, at GableStage, Paints a Wrenching Picture of Congolese Violence

The dark echoes of the Congo — its tragic landscape, incessant rainstorms, and horrifying danger — are the ebb and flow of Lynn Nottage's beautifully devastating, Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Ruined, now at GableStage at the Biltmore.

Nottage, a playwright whose work often delves into the lives of African-American women, won a Pulitzer for drama in 2009 for Ruined. That same year, she addressed the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee with a speech titled "Confronting Rape and Other Forms of Violence Against Women in Conflict Zones," using case studies from the Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Those same case studies, which came from Nottage's interviews with Congolese women fleeing the armed conflict, also gave birth to the characters in Ruined. Life on a knife's edge is a cold, harsh fact of life for these women, and Ruined's uneasy narrative brings to the forefront the reality of the sexual violence and torture they endure.

Set in a Congolese whorehouse during a civil war, Ruined is an absorbing character study of survival and sacrifice. Mama Nadi (Lela Elam) runs an efficient little brothel in a jungle on the edge of a mining town. It's a bar that boasts the only billiards table for miles, and war-weary soldiers trudge in to escape the daily chaos and violence that swallows their lives whole.

In Mama's place, the whiskey is always flowing, the beer is always cold, and the girls are always willing. For anyone who visits, it's Mama's way or none at all. She serves both rebels and militiamen, as long as they leave their bullets at the door and abide by her rules. The reality of nearby death and destruction is always present, but Mama is a no-nonsense madam and businesswoman who runs a tight ship.

Ruined, which runs about 90 minutes with a 15-minute intermission, tackles several story lines.

The central plot involves Christian (Robert Strain) — a disheveled, affable professor who sometimes delivers provisions — asking Mama to take in two new girls. He presents her with Salima (Trenell Mooring), fidgeting with apprehension, and his own niece, Sophie (Jade Wheeler), who walks with a painful limp.

Neither girl appeals to Mama's bottom line of turning a profit. But Christian is able to bribe her with cartons of cigarettes and Belgian chocolates. Mama remains reluctant, however, especially after she learns that Sophie's limp is a result of her being raped with a bayonet and left for dead years ago. She can't perform the duties required of a girl in a brothel because she's "ruined," Christian admits. But she's smart and hardworking and "can sing like an angel."

After Mama relents, Sophie proves to be everything her uncle promised. She serves drinks and entertains patrons with her lovely singing. She also proves to be intelligent and educated, reading romance novels to amuse the other girls and earning a job as Mama's bookkeeper.

Though she's stern, Mama is also moved to help her girls. She takes a particular interest in Sophie, showing her tough love while sheltering her from the terrors outside the bar.

The central theme of the play is survival. It's elusive and always hidden somewhere in the dark. But the girls remain steadfast, even as each carries the burden of her own hidden horror stories.

In the most gut-wrenching scene, Salima relates how a group of rebels gang-raped her in front of her infant daughter while her militiaman husband was out buying her a cooking pot. Shame and dread coat her every word, and the story is so chilling and unspeakable that it makes for compelling, if extremely uncomfortable, theater.

Artfully directed by Joseph Adler, Ruined is one of GableStage's most ambitious productions to date. The 13 actors and two musicians comprise the largest cast the group has ever had onstage.

Lyle Baskin's complex set design perfectly frames Ruined. Decorated with holiday lights and local photographs, Mama's bar has the feel of a storm-battered, wood-paneled dive. The girls' sleeping quarters, built on a platform above the main stage, are dank and cramped. Lighting designer Jeff Quinn and scenic artist Case Moyer reinforce the bar as a place of refuge by simulating constant lightning and gunfire ominously flashing among the trees outside.

The cast is simply superb. Elam, as Mama, is a force of nature. She sweeps across the stage with thunder and aplomb, every now and then revealing the fear that simmers just beneath the surface of this tough madam. Wheeler evokes earnest sympathy as Sophie. While her role demands physical contortions, she also portrays fragility and courage through her eyes. Her limp comes and goes a bit too frequently, however.

Ruined brims with moments of suspense, humor, and tension, but at times it drags when one too many story lines are at play.

Still, there's no denying this work's raw impact. Rape is the ultimate weapon in the Congo, and Ruined is able to entertain while shining a stark light on the faces of its victims.

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Chris Joseph

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