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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Manhattan Theatre Club


  Saida Arrika Ekulona and Condola Rashad/Ph: Joan Marcus

The eloquent and provocative playwright Lynn Nottage is back in New York with a new piece, Ruined, that just might be the unlikeliest love story of the theater season. Nottage has told many of her best-known tales through the eyes of African American women (Intimate Apparel Fabulation). With Ruined , which runs at Manhattan Theatre Club through March 29 (in a co-production with the Goodman Theatre), the playwright's focus is on Africa, specifically a Congo rainforest tragically close to the border of Rwanda. For more than a decade now, the mind-numbing violence of that country has spilled over into neighboring states and set off a series of wars that have comprised the bloodiest conflict since World War II.

Nottage uses that real-life backdrop to explore one of the most shocking aspects of this battlefield: a relentless culture of sexual violence-from all sides of the conflict-against women and girls, some of whom are so savagely raped that they're given the sobriquet that serves as the title of Nottage's drama.

Caught squarely in the middle of that cycle is a formidable character named Mama Nadi, whose resemblance to Brecht's Mother Courage is entirely intentional. Mama, played with ferocity and occasional, welcome humor by Saidah Arrika Ekulona (of the Tony-nominated play Well), owns a bar in the midst of the rainforest whose door is open to anyone likely to be wandering through such a war-torn area-that is to say, government soldiers, more than one faction of rebel militia, and the inevitable small-time profiteers who help keep Mama well-stocked with cigarettes, chocolate, and condoms, plus (spoiler alert) one somewhat more shocking commodity: some of those young female rape victims who have been cast off from their families, often sold for less than the price of those chocolates. It seems that Mama's establishment serves more than just liquor.

The busy young regional and off-Broadway director Kate Whoriskey helms a powerful ensemble of actors here. Especially strong are Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Condola Rashad, as two achingly young-looking women sold to Mama, and Russell Gebert Jones as the uncle of one of them who does the selling. That his actions can be seen as compassionate, by the way, tells you a lot about the world of this play. But then, Jones is so good that he manages to come across as one of the most consistently sympathetic characters, even when that compassion is well hidden.

As with Brecht's heroine, it's clear that Mama's open-door policy to all sides of this conflict is not going to be sustainable. And, indeed, Ruined is a harrowing evening of theater, one for which you're relieved-for all the right reasons-when it's over. This is one of those plays that will make it impossible to casually turn the page anymore when your newspaper offers the occasional report from its corner of the world. I won't offer any more spoilers. Just be on the lookout for basic human kindness. It's something rarer than the precious minerals that get mined and exploited from this land, fueling the never-ending war. But when it appears, it takes the play in surprising directions.



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