THEATER ARTS: “RUINED” by Lynn Nottage Links War, Horror and Prostitution, a Preview

THEATER ARTS: “RUINED” by Lynn Nottage Links War, Horror and Prostitution, a Preview

by Alexis Greene

©PHOTOGRAPHS courtesy of Lynn Nottage: Congolese woman

“You will not fight your battles on my body anymore.”

Thus speaks the character of the Congolese prostitute Salima in Lynn Nottage’s new drama Ruined. Like most of the women in Nottage’s unsettling play, Salima has been raped and tortured by soldiers waging a vicious civil war. She has become a prostitute to survive.

Nottage, who received the MacArthur Foundation’s so-called “genius” award in 2007, believes it’s her “social responsibility” to shine a light on issues and situations that often do not make the headlines. The 1997 Mud, River, Stone focuses on Africa’s political revolutions and the political engagement of America’s black middle-class. Intimate Apparel, which was produced in 2004 and subsequently nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, takes place in New York early in the twentieth century and delves into the restricted world of a lonely African-American seamstress and the orthodox Jewish man who loves her.

The year of Intimate Apparel, Nottage and her frequent stage director Kate Whoriskey traveled to East Africa, to research a new work that Nottage wanted to write. “We were talking about doing a contemporary adaptation of Brecht’s Mother Courage,” says Nottage. “We wanted to figure out a way to discuss war — since we are in the midst of a war. But we wanted to look at war from a womans point of view.” Brech’s Mother Courage and Her Children, first performed in 1941, famously depicted the devastation and futility of modern warfare, and the greed of those who, like its antihero, profit from the needs of those who fight.

Hearing the Worst

Nottage and Whoriskey could not enter the Congo, which was still in the middle of its own (ten-year) war. But they flew into Uganda, where Amnesty International, for which Nottage had once worked, set up interviews with Congolese refugee women.

The stories the women told were horrific.

“Regardless of age, social status or race—in one case we interviewed a white woman who was a refugee—they all had one thing in common,” says Nottage. “They had been raped. In brutal acts of violence, with things like bayonets.”

Mutilated and shamed, the women found themselves to be outcasts. “Their husbands had rejected them,” says Nottage. “Their communities had rejected them. Friends didn’t want to take them in, because they had leakage and smelled of urine. They needed money for medical expenses and operations, and the only thing they could do was turn to prostitution.”

Telling of Women’s War

In Ruined, Nottage creates a Mother Courage type of central character named Mama Nadi, who runs a bar/brothel on the edge of a Congolese mining town and caters to any political faction, so long as it’s a paying one.

But Mama’s attitude toward the women she hires is comparatively benign–a mixture of greed, control and her own brand of kindness. There’s no cash for any of her twelve girls (Mama doesn’t want them leaving), but there’s shelter, beds, some food, and clothes.

Mama’s particular form of generosity extents to Salima, who comes to the brothel after months of captivity–chained by her foot to a post and repeatedly raped. Salima is pregnant, a condition that Mama ordinarily would not tolerate. But she allows Salima to remain and, of course, continue to service the customers.

Beauteous eighteen-year-old Sophie has been “ruined” by bayonet-thrusting soldiers and cannot earn money for Mama Nadi by engaging in conventional sexual intercourse. Still, Mama allows the girl to stay, singing for the men, fetching beers and generally adorning the place. Only when Sophie insults the commander of the government forces—and puts everyone in the brothel at risk–does Mama punish her, ordering her to perform oral sex on the man. Later, although her business has disintegrated, Mama sacrifices her hoard of uncut diamonds in an effort to provide Sophie with the operation she needs.

To those who criticize, Mama Nadi retorts that “I don’t force anyone’s hand. My girls, ask them…they’d rather be here, any day, than back out there in their villages where they are taken without regard. They’re safer with me…”

Damaged Irreparably

“She sees herself as saving women who are optionless,” says Nottage. “It’s like, ‘If I did not provide a home for these women, they’d be forced to beg in the street, or they’d be back in the jungle being raped time and time again. I’m giving them an option to choose how their bodies are to be used.’ She sees it as an act of defiance.”

©PHOTOGRAPHS courtesy of Lynn Nottage, with Congolese women

That said, Nottage does not glorify prostitution. If prostitution, as Nottage indicates, offers a choice for the women of Ruined, the choice is the most basic one of whether to live or die. Prostitution becomes an ironic kind of haven for these women. They are not being raped by soldiers with bayonets, but, as Salima says, their bodies are still battle zones. To Salima, the difference between prostituting herself under Mama Nadi’s roof and being raped in the bush has become minimal. There is little consent on her part, and great suffering, in either case.

Indeed, Salima is desperate to leave Mama Nadi’s, even though, as Sophie reminds her, “If you leave, where will you go? Huh? Sleep in the bush? Scrounge for food in the stinking refugee camp. There is a war going on, and it isn’t safe for women alone….It’s better this way.”

When Salima’s husband shows up, looking for her, she feels horribly conflicted. Salima doesn’t want him to see that she has become a whore, but she is tempted to return to him. He threw her out after she’d been raped and called her “a filthy dog,” but once upon a time they had loved each other. She resolves the conflict by killing herself.

By the play’s end, Mama Nadi has softened and learned to be affectionate, especially to the man in her life. Still, the term “ruined” has taken on a meaning beyond that that of a woman whose body is irreparably damaged.

The body of the entire country has been ruined. War has turned the Congo’s men into murderers and rapists who consider women subhuman. And the Congo’s women exist by prostituting themselves to the very men who once savaged them.

Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined” will receive its world premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in fall 2008.

Alexis Greene is a New York-based author, editor and theater critic who writes about the performing arts and about women. Her book The Story of 42nd Street, written with Mary C. Henderson, is being published in September 2008 by Watson-Guptill/Random House. Her anthology Political Visions: 7 Plays by American Women, edited with Shirley Lauro, is being published by The New Press in Spring 2009.