Berkeley Rep's "Ruined" Is About Women's Bodies, the Battlefield of the War in the Congo

The Congo has been called "the rape capital of the world." Sadistic systematic rape is part of everyday atrocities that continue in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, despite the fact that the war officially ended in 2002.

It is, to say the least, a challenging topic for theater. And yet Lynn Nottage's play, Ruined, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the Drama Desk Award, the Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play, the Lucille Lortel Award, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, an Obie Award, and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Play.

Ruined opened at Berkeley Rep last week and it is a disturbing, beautifully acted and choreographed play. And anything but a good time.


Wendell B. Franklin, Carla Duren, Zainab Jah and Tonye Patano

If you've read about the ongoing mass rape of Congolese women, transpiring over the last decade, you are probably sick to your stomach.

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"Ruined" is the euphemistic term used to refer to a woman whose body has been savaged by rape. The particulars are mostly left to the imagination in the play. In many cases, Congolese women have been butchered by bayonets and assaulted with chunks of wood such that their reproductive and digestive systems are beyond repair. Some who have received treatment use colostomy bags because of internal damage.

While the details and the statistics are overwhelming, they are not unknown. Newspaper articles about the sexual violence and about the government and rebel armies are there to read. Nottage had a different approach. She went to East Africa in 2004 and interviewed Congolese women about their lives. An African American from Brooklyn, Nottage shaped these stories into a drama, a theatrical performance that, under Liesl Tommy's solid direction, could let these women "speak for themselves."


Carla Duren is held back by Kola Ogundiran and Okierete Onaodowan

And yet, while the subject matter is powerful, this composite biographical documentary approach doesn't successfully employ the power of theater -- as an art form.

Set in a deceptively appealing honky-tonk bar, each of the women in this play has a different back story, a different trauma they are running from, hiding from or recovering from. Tonye Patano plays Mama Nadi, the tough cookie queen bee who runs the bar and brothel. Patano, who played a likewise surly and charismatic part in the TV show Weeds (as a pot-dealing mama) is terrific.

Like the war profiteering Mother Courage, Nadi is a commanding survivor. Like Brecht's entrepreneur, she sells her wares, in this case women and whiskey, to an endless stream of soldiers. She doesn't choose sides.

And so, Nottage presents her with compelling ambiguity. Is Nadi exploiting or protecting the girls she employs? Will she stand up to the thugs or give them free booze? It's complicated.

The war in the Congo has been called "the African equivalent of Afghanistan," because of the conflict's enduring violence and complexity. Both the government army and the rebel soldiers are corrupt opportunists and ruthless rapists. There are no good guys, and so no one is safe.


Carla Duren and Pascale Armand

Sophie, who cannot walk straight (one can readily imagine why) is a newcomer to Nadi's quasi-sanctuary. Carla Duren plays the terrified and traumatized girl, who is, unluckily for her, the pretty one. And although Nadi has designated Sophie "off bounds" to the groping men, protection only goes so far in this climate of lawlessness and self-preservation.

It's Sophie who gets to sing with the band, rather than serve whiskey and sex. She sings melodious, mellow songs with a vitalizing African rhythm. And it's the music in Ruined that gives the audience some reprieve and, with Sophie and the other women up on stage, some hope that happiness can still exist.

And there are other moments of warmth. Oberon K.A. Adjepong is charming as Christian, the voice of male decency and moral outrage. His humor and clowning brighten the bar and he seems to be one of the few there who refuses to give up on these women. Pascale Armand plays Salima, a wife and mother whose vivid account of the brutality she has survived is horrid and horrible to hear. Zainab Jah's Josephine, the third woman working the bar, is another type; hardened and cynical. She has been there the longest.

Original music and sound design are from a musical collective called Broken Chord (Daniel Baker and Aaron Meicht and rap lyricist Earl David). Their talents are immense, their contribution is invaluable.

While the onstage band alleviates the play's tension, hip hop and rap introduce an unsettling, threatening male energy that feels like a battle cry. The soldiers, drunk, stoned and tweaked on testosterone, initiate an intimidating, muscular and fascinating dance sequence, taking turns peacocking, and center-staging. They mesmerize with an athletic sexuality that's breathtaking and very frightening.

Rivetingly choreographed by Randy Duncan, this scene uses kinetic movement to communicate menace and control -- it's nearly an interpretive dance of the energy of gang rape. And the scene is one of the few times that Ruined is truly theatrical. Here, the play uses the craft of theater, not transcripts, to show and not to tell.

Ruined runs through April 10, 2011 at Berkeley Repertory Theater. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org or call 1-888-427–8849.

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