I’ll admit, I knew nothing of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winning play RUINED. Directed by Kate Whoriskey, RUINED is a searing portrait of women who take refuge in a brothel in the Congo. Having been abused, traded into slavery, raped, and/or damaged from all the sexual violence they’ve been subject to, these are women that need a place to feel safe and heal.
The drama, now playing at The Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, CA, is set in a small mining town in the Ituri Rainforest. The story unfolds in Mama Nadi’s bar which caters to not only anyone who happens to be traveling in the war-torn area, but to a host of local soldiers and miners. Playing surrogate mom to a handful of girls, Mama Nadi (Portia) is also a Madame of sorts, pimping out her borders to anyone who takes a fancy to them. But when Christian (Russell G. Jones) one of Mama Nadi’s suppliers asks her to take in his niece and niece’s friend, Mama Nadi will find her life changing. And not all for the good.
Sophie (Condolo Rashad) is a young woman so “ruined” by the repeated sexual abuse she’s suffered, she walks with a limp. Her friend, Josephine (Cherise Boothe) is a girl with one eye permanently half-closed and nervous twitches that expose the suffering she’s endured. The two join Mama Nadi with Josephine becoming one of her “girls,” while Sophie, having been too ruined to be of use as a prostitute, is designated to bartender and singer.
But as civil unrest grows, so does the danger for Mama Nadi and her clan. And when Josephine’s husband comes looking for her, the lies and violence escalate until everyone’s lives are altered.
What’s fascinating about this show is how accessible it is. Not knowing much about the political goings-on in the Congo, nor the plight of the Congolese women, I was able to easily enter their world. For me, even though the writing was a bit simplified in order to suck in a general audience, I became invested in the people, and at the same time, I was educated about a situation I didn’t know much about.
I had heard from many people how depressing RUINED was and how it wasn’t the most pleasant night out at the theatre. This made me wonder if they had ever seen EQUUS. But I guess in that isn’t the point. RUINED made me aware of a part of the world I have turned my eyes away from for so long, and now feel like I know a fraction of what’s occurring there and am curious as to how to change it. And in that, the play is entirely effective.
The performances in the Los Angeles cast are all first rate, with Portia being the stalwart root of the show and even with her hardened persona, is the most changed when all is said and done. Rashad is heartbreakingly effective as Sophie, a woman that has been though years of hell, only to still have a light shining out of her that symbolizes the belief she has that things will get better. While she seems almost naïve at first (constantly reading her romance novels and thinking the best of people), we soon see that outlook is all she has. It’s what keeps her alive and gives her the strength to get out of bed everyday.
Similarly, Boothe’s Josephine might be a mess of nerves and zero self-esteem, but when she explains her past, we understand her personal damage and the resulting power she’s gained from it.
And this all got me to thinking: we can choose to look at a sad truth or a depressing story and simply brush it off as too gloomy to experience. “I don’t want to see that. It’s too much of a downer.” And sure, sometimes we just want something light. We want exuberant entertainment to get us out of our own lives that may or may not be at their most fulfilling. But that’s distressing. Because within the ruin of these women’s lives, lies a hope for the future: a strength that has grown big and hard inside them that the fact they are still standing, is cause for celebration. So in the misery of their stories, there still is a joy. And that joy is what we should latch onto. That potency is where our focus should be.
I look at the women in my own family and I see a similar power and it humbles me. My sister passed away this June after a ten year battle with cancer, kidney disease, and an un-diagnosable condition that caused a myriad of mental and physical problems. Her quick decent was unexpected and one of the saddest times in my life. But while I sat next to her bedside as she slipped away from us in hospice care, I thought back to the amazing vigor she had throughout her health battles and even for years before that. For a long time after getting married, she was essentially a single mother. She took care of her two children with the zeal of an Olympic athlete, all while working a full-time job. Many nights I’d visit her and watch as she prepared the kids for school, did the housework, and still found time to take a moment to enjoy something for herself. Unfortunately, she should have had more time to herself, but she continued on with a smile and a massive bubble of love that she surrounded her children with.
When she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, she was also going through her own marital problems which just added to the stress and pressure the disease had already put on her. But with the help of my parents and the love of her kids, not to mention the rest of the family, she beat it and forged ahead with life. But it seemed that life kept beating her down. Medical issue after medical issue caused a number of problems that afflicted her day in and day out. This caused a hopelessness that stayed with her for many years. Again, she found an inner strength to go on, a hope that things would get better, and that love for her children that made her fight day after day.
So as she lay in her hospital bed, her too short life gliding away, I made sure to appreciate how much she endured. She survived ten rough years that many people wouldn’t have been able to bear. And while she wasn’t always positive about everything, she did the best she could with the conditions she was given. I’m not so sure I would have survived as long as she did, and for that, she is a hero to me.
But I can’t talk about the power of my sister, without also honoring another strong woman in my life: my mother. Having been a nurse, my mother did a lot of caring for my sister, along with the mothering she so obviously would do for an ill daughter. She parented my sister’s children when my sister wasn’t able to, and made sure she was as comfortable as she could be.
A year and a half after my sister was diagnosed and healed from the cancer, my father passed away unexpectedly. So here my mother stood, worried about her daughter,but without the support of my father to lean on. When my sister moved with her kids to my mother’s house, my mom truly became a mother again. Gone were her days of “retirement” and moving on from the death of my father. Instead, she became a full time mother and caretaker. But she did it, she says, because “she’s my daughter.” There was no question in her mind. Your daughter is sick, you help make her better. Your daughter needs help, you make sure she gets it. Her kids need guidance, you do it. It didn’t matter that my mother was getting older and being a mother to two teenagers and caring for an ill daughter was exhausting. You did it because it was your family. There were no options here.
My mom gave a lot of herself for that next seven years and to then have to hold the hand of her daughter as she passed from this life to the next must have been agonizing. I would watch her in the hospital wanting desperately to hold her “baby girl” in her arms like she had when my sister was a child, but not being able to. Life wasn’t working out like I’m sure she had imagined or dreamed, and that pain and disappointment has to be, at times, excruciating.
But she forged ahead and did what had to be done. She cared for her daughter. She loved her grandkids. She gave of herself whether it caused her pain or not. And even during those times of great sadness, I still saw a light in her. The same light I saw in my sister. Sometimes that light dimmed to just a flicker and I wondered if it would ever burn brightly again. For my sister, I think now her light is shining so bright it’s become a part of the sun itself. And at night, her essence is in the glow of the moon that guides our way.
As for my mother, the light is coming back. In memories. In the love of her sons. In the companionship of her sister. In the friends that she adores and that adore her back.
This is the strength I saw in the women of RUINED: one that comes from deep inside at that point behind your stomach that twinges with sickness…. excitement… terror… bliss… and elation. It’s the place that we draw from when we need to overcome the damage that we’ve suffered and to remind ourselves that there will always be hope. There will always be wonder. There will always be a day when we will feel joy again, no matter how long we’ve gone without it. Because with that kind of resolute faith, we can never be truly ruined.
RUINED runs September 7 – October 17, 2010 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood Village, Los Angeles, California 90024