Playwright Lynn Nottage originally imagined her Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 drama, Ruined, as a contemporary African take on Mother Courage and Her Children, the Bertolt Brecht music theater work often cited as one of the great antiwar plays of the 20th century. Even though Nottage finally decided against a direct adaptation of that work after interviewing a number of aid workers and women survivors from the ongoing Congolese conflict in 2004–05, the similarities between the two are striking.
Like the title character in Brecht's play, Nottage's protagonist, Mama Nadi, is a woman who has managed to carve out a tenuous place of her own on dangerously contested ground—in this case, a village in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, an area that has been regularly claimed and counterclaimed in a series of conflicts between government soldiers and insurgent forces since the genocide in neighboring Rwanda chased hundreds of thousands of refugees, and militiamen, into its territory in 1994.
In that world, Mama Nadi has established herself as a tenacious businesswoman who caters to rebel and government soldiers alike. In her bar, the beer is overpriced but cold; the liquor cut, but not to an extreme. The women she shelters—and whose sexual services she vends and profits from—would otherwise be prey to the mass rape documented by Human Rights Watch, Oxfam and the United Nations as a routine weapon of war here.
It should burn the conscience that for women like the rough Salima, Josephine the haughty refugee and Sophie the fragile songbird, sexual violation in such a world seems a foregone conclusion. In Mama Nadi's place there is at least the illusion that it occurs under more controlled circumstances that are marginally more equitable, socially and economically.
But this sanctuary built of booze bottles and painted, corrugated tin is rocked by more than distant mortar fire. Its balance is constantly threatened by the whiskey-stoked, sociopathic and megalomaniacal military clientele. Mama Nadi's righteous protestations, strategic pacifications and flattery may keep a provisional peace in these rooms, but they don't change one fundamental fact: In the Congo, live ammunition trumps all. Her customers are armed, and they will ultimately direct their weapons at whom they please. She and her women can't do that. The only way any of these women can insist that the soldiers not continue the battles on their bodies is by dying.
With a script as dynamic as Nottage's, it's all the more unfortunate that a series of technical gaffes, design issues and questionable choices in characterization and acting limited the work's impact on opening night. Though productions have disastrous opening nights at times and then go on to wholly credible runs, as the difficulties mounted last Friday night, we began to wonder if what we were seeing was an improbable accumulation of bad luck, or merely the outcome of inadequate training and rehearsal.
A malfunctioning heating system that had already replicated the Republic of Congo's climate when we entered University Theater was the first sign of troubles to come. A blown speaker reduced music, sound effects and speech on one side of the room to scratchy, static-filled distortion, before the house sound system emitted feedback several times trying to amplify actors' nonprojecting voices.
We eventually figured out that repeated pops in the darkness weren't another sound system glitch but represented munitions fire. Random bursts of light on a painted backdrop that inexplicably ended at mid-stage suggested exploding mortar shells in the trees of a rainforest, but the effect was sabotaged by an out-of-focus lighting instrument that repeatedly illuminated the black cinderblock, metal pipes and red fire alarm system on the theater's exposed back wall. A scene change in which a large set piece needed to be lifted into the fly space above the stage had to be stopped in darkness and restarted with lights up as the scenery swayed in midair. And in a bar scene where a government soldier went berserk, the ashtrays and bottles on one nightclub table suddenly went flying into the front rows of the house, as audience members ducked and scrambled to get out of the way.
Thankfully, technical disasters can usually be addressed as quickly as they spring up. But questions about acting and direction often take longer to resolve. There is always the danger of overinflating a larger-than-life character like Mama Nadi. Unfortunately, on opening night, Kammeran Giggers appeared to have been largely directed by Dr. Stephanie Howard (who uses the single stage name of Asabi) to melodramatize her way through the lead role. At points, Giggers' exaggerated expressions and hammy gestures came closer to suggesting the aesthetics of a century ago than those of the present day. The fury of the spurned husband of one of Mama's "girls," is staged at one point through a scrunched face and lips so pursed they seemed about to kiss a fellow soldier, not kill him. Though too often actors seemed directed to convey only the physical extremities of emotions, Tara-Whitney Rison's second-act soliloquy conveyed the true horror of Salima's harrowing journey.
With a performance of Ruined as disadvantaged as we saw on opening night, it's hard to predict what audiences will encounter during the rest of its run. That's doubly unfortunate—and a squandered opportunity—for a show with a message this timely and needed.
For readers seeking more information on rape and warfare in the Congo, Lisa Jackson's 2008 documentary, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, is available on HBO On Demand through Feb. 22. Visit thegreatestsilence.org.