Friday, Jun 23, 2017

Ruined (2010)

Photo by Jenny Graham

Before I saw Ruined last week at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I was dreading it. I felt like a kid staring at a pile of vegetables – it’s supposed to be good for me, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Immediately after seeing it, mostly I was shell shocked. With a little bit of time to reflect, I have to modify my preconception before broadcasting it: Ruined is good for you, and you absolutely must see it. If you have older children, double that – it’s imperative that they see it. This isn’t because it’s so good that it outweighs the nasty feeling of swallowing it. No, Ruined goes down well, powerfully delivering its message while still leaving you with hope for the goodness of mankind.

Set in the Democratic Republic of Congo (note to old-timers like myself: until 1997 this country was known as Zaire, ), Ruined’s action centers around Mama Nadi (Kimberly Scott) and her tavern/brothel, a relative oasis amidst the deadliest war since World War II – loaded guns aren’t even allowed. Miners and rebel soldiers stop in for an occasional respite from the tedium and misery that makes up their life. The story gains traction when her supplier, Christian (Tyrone Wilson), brings her “two when she only wanted “one.” They haggle for a moment before he goes to fetch “them”. It’s when you discover that they’ve been talking about girls for the brothel like they’re mops or candy bars that you realize what kind of stakes you’ll be playing for during the production. He brings Mama Salima (Chinasa Ogbuagu) and Sophie (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), both of whom have suffered the systemic abuse of women that has become the hallmark of the war in the DRC. Sophie, in particular, has been “ruined*” and is considered bad luck. Mama only consents to have her when Christian admits that she is his niece.

I hesitate to go much farther with the recap, for the same reason that I say you must see this play. I don’t think I’m breaking any news when I say that most people in the United States have become inured to the calamities that we hear about (never mind the ones that we don’t hear about) coming out of Africa; Darfur, Rwanda… . It’s not surprising in one sense – who willingly puts their hand in a fire? Still, if international pressure is going to be brought to bear on these situations, it requires awareness from the citizenry of those nations. That’s where Ruined comes in. A powerful play such as this one, well acted (as this production most definitely is), provides one of theater’s great gifts: empathy. We can tune out the news, but when the audience gasps as Salima recounts the tale of her abduction, when we agonize over the fate of a child who never existed (but who is no doubt modeled on a hundred stories that the author heard during her travels to do research during the writing of Ruined), we begin to grasp just how bad it is right now in the real world. This is why I say older children… old enough to understand in some sense what sexual violence is and why it’s as awful as it is… ought to see this play as well. This is art-as-journalism that will inform their perspective on the world beyond the horizon.

Before I convince you that this is some sort of polemic, let me stress that Ruined may be art-as-journalism but it never loses sight of the art. This is a well-crafted play with characters that you care for and a story that, seen in full once the show is over, allows for grace to exist in the toughest of lives. Ms. Scott anchors this production with a phenomenal portrayal of a real women, capable of happiness and terror in the same day, able to see herself as a savior in her role as madam. The three young women (Salima, Sophie, and Victoria Ward as Josephine) ably depict the various stages of grief concerning their situation – notably anger, depression, and acceptance. Salima’s monologue towards the beginning of the 2nd half is a particular stand-out performance in a production that’s full of them. The men of the play do a fine job, but this play stands and falls with the women, and taken as an ensemble they give one of the finest showings I can recall at the Festival.

I don’t have a pithy conclusion – this isn’t a show to sum up with a glib one-liner. It will leave you pondering the world, chewing your thoughts, maybe angry at the circumstances that give rise to these stories… along with all of that, add in a “thank you” that the ensemble has thoroughly delivered on the play’s promise of enlightenment. They’ve made it harder to ignore this situation and others like it.







* What does “ruined” mean? Last chance not to read this…. it means she was raped by bayonet, destroying her genitals in the process.