'Ruined' Humanizes War-Ravaged Congo

Kevin Berne/Courtesy

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In 2000, Nelson Mandela said in an interview with the National Geographic: "I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself." But in the Congo, more than five million have died in the past ten years of war. Clearly, Mandela's dream is far from realized.

Lynn Nottage's "Ruined," now playing at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre, provides a glimpse into this bloody conflict. In a dark but hopeful production directed by Liesl Tommy, "Ruined" brings Berkeley audiences closer to a world they could otherwise easily ignore.

In a phone interview last week, Tommy expressed her hope that the play could help combat ignorance. "It can put a humanizing face on the newspaper stories that people might not read, because it's too depressing," she said. "But you can watch the play and connect with individuals and see people's humanity - and it can make you care."

"Ruined" centers on a group of women who have escaped the threat of death and sexual violence in the east Congo by seeking refuge in a small brothel. These women, victims of unthinkable sexual crimes, work nightly entertaining soldiers and miners to survive.

This arrangement is far from ideal, but there are no simple answers for these characters - and there are no simple characters. The men and women of Nottage's story defy easy moral judgment. One character victimizes another, but may herself have suffered the worst of war.

Hundreds of thousands of women have been victims of rape in the Congo. To be "ruined" is to have been so violently sexually assaulted, sometimes with a weapon or other foreign object, as to destroy the urogenital system, causing incontinence and infertility. Many are also "ruined" socially, rejected by their husbands and communities. Some of the characters in "Ruined" have suffered fistula and the stigma of rape and its aftermath.

To prepare for the intensity of Nottage's material, Tommy put her cast through a rigorous research process. According to Tommy, after watching multiple documentaries to orient themselves politically and historically, her cast gained "a strong sense of responsibility and a burning passion to tell these peoples' stories."

Despite the trauma of the process, she believes it was time well spent. "I think this is the strongest version of the production thus far," she said. Liesl has already directed "Ruined" for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, La Jolla Playhouse and Huntington Theatre Company.

"They've just gotten better and better and gone deeper and deeper and become more committed with every audience," she said. "It's incredibly moving and I can't help but be proud of them. It's very draining to do this kind of work, to go to these traumatic, emotional places every night."

For all its pain, the production has several surprising moments of levity, framed by the beautifully detailed jungle scenery designed by Clint Ramos. Music plays a leading role in bringing peace to moments of chaos.

"The fabulous Congolese music that the musicians bang out there every night - it really helps uplift," said Tommy. "For the actors too - they get to dance and they get to sing and it helps balance expressions of joy with expressions of anguish. I think it's essential for them as well as for the audience."

"Ruined" does not allow its audience much escapism. Viewing this play means more than becoming a spectator to another bloody conflict in Africa. It is a highly emotional work, and one that implicates its audience in the tragedies it portrays.

Because the fact is that Americans are partly responsible for this conflict and all the horrors it entails: kidnapping, enslavement, torture, rape of young women, of elderly women, of men and boys. Congo's violence is sustained today, even after an official peace agreement in 2003, due to the trade in so-called "conflict minerals" such as coltan, used in the manufacture of everyday electronics used by Americans. The Enough Project estimates armed militias earn $183 million each year trading these minerals.

These are the very soldiers responsible for conducting mass rape.

For all its ability to educate audiences about the situation in Congo, "Ruined" manages to avoid diatribe. Although "Ruined" is set in a specific place and time, its subject is universal: the horror of war and the struggle for survival.

These themes are driven in this production by a number of powerful and moving performances. Tonye Patano as Mama Nadi, the self-proclaimed businesswoman and leader of the brothel, defies description. She taps into a deep well of pain that fills the entire stage with her smallest breath or gesture. She also provides many of the play's moments of comic relief. Humor, somehow, is a consistent force in "Ruined."

"People are people no matter what their circumstances are," Tommy explained.

"Even though the material can be grim and the circumstances horrific, we're watching people fight for hope and survival, and there are moments of joy and laughter and silliness and hope. Because that's life."


Hannah Jewell is the lead theater critic. Contact her at [email protected]

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