Ruined: Don’t look away

Dark Glass Theatre is producing Lynn Nottage's Ruined.

Makambe K. Simamba and Shayna Jones take you all the way there in Ruined. (Photo by Jalen Saip)

War is fought on women’s bodies. That truth is at the heart of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined.

Nottage sets Ruined during the war in Congo, which was officially over in 2002 but continues to rage. The action unfolds in Mama Nadi’s roadside canteen and brothel. Government and rebel armies are fighting for control of the country’s natural resources, which include coltan, a mineral essential to the production of cellphones.

Eighteen-year-old Sophie is expected to entertain fighters from both sides as well as miners. But Sophie isn’t a sex worker, she sings. She has been “ruined”, so brutalized by rape that she lives with chronic pain and infection.

For five months, Sophie’s friend Salima was a sex slave to rebel forces. Now she must work as a prostitute.

Watching Ruined, the first frightening realization is that Mama Nadi’s is the safest place for these women to be. Because they have been dishonoured, their families and villages want nothing to do with them.

Throughout the play, everybody tries to figure out how to survive—as the fighting gets closer.

Under Angela Konrad’s direction, there are some phenomenal performances in this production—lots of them from actors I’ve never seen before.

From her first, halting entrance, Makambe K. Simamba ripped my heart out as Sophie. It doesn’t feel like she’s acting. Without hitting a single false note, she covers a huge range—fighting like a fury when a powerful soldier assumes that it’s his right to fuck her, whispering a barely audible “Excuse me” as she exits to read a letter that has, surprisingly, come from her mother.

Shayna Jones, who plays Salima, is every bit as credible. Salima has a long speech in which she relives her abduction and the loss of her baby, Beatrice. Without ever resorting to melodrama or sentimentality, Jones makes it real.

It’s clear that the actors in this production by Dark Glass Theatre know that they’re working on something important, something that’s bigger than they are. Those are the only circumstances in which you get performances that are this deep and humble.

Rachel Mutombo, who plays a prostitute named Josephine, is certainly in that camp. Josephine is the daughter of a chief and sometimes she is cruel to Sophie and Salima as she tries to regain status, but Mutombo also lets us see Josephine’s desperation. And, when Josephine dances, joy flashes off her in primary colours.

There’s terrific work from the men in the cast, too. I’ve been watching Tom Pickett perform for decades and, to my delight, he keeps surprising me. Here, he’s playing a trader named Christian who has amorous designs on Mama Nadi. When Mama chides Christian, he recoils and teases, “Why are you wearing my grandmama’s face?” Pickett sips every ounce of nectar out of that line. And, when he dances in the canteen, he looks like a local.

Adrian Neblett, whom I saw last in The Shipment, also impresses as a couple of disparate characters: a lascivious rebel fighter, and an ethical government soldier intent on righting a past wrong.

The one casting oddity in this production is Mariam Barry as Mama. Barry took over the part when the original actor dropped out two days before the scheduled opening. To her great credit, Barry saved the day and she delivers a decent performance. That said, it’s also part of my job to point out that, unlike the others, she’s not doing a consistent Congolese accent, she’s too young to play Mama, and there’s room for a lot more nuance.

Nottage’s script isn’t perfect either. A couple of major plot turns are predictable and, in this production at least, Act 1 feels long.

The show looks great, though. Set designer Carolyn Rapanos wraps one wall plus the floor of the canteen in an oilcloth that’s been painted in a gigantic rust-and-black African pattern. And I was transfixed by the kaleidoscope of Megan Gilron’s costume design: for the women, she mixes Western dresses with wrapped African fabrics in a way that feels like it has to be authentic, and the colours are eye-popping.

Watching Ruined is harrowing. There’s also hope—in the tale itself, but mostly in the play’s insistence that we recognize its characters’ humanity. I have no idea what to do about my cellphone dependence, but I am more aware of the suffering in which it implicates me. And I have been forcefully reminded of the evils of war, misogyny, and unfettered capitalism.

RUINED By Lynn Nottage. A Dark Glass Theatre production directed by Angela Konrad. At Pacific Theatre on Saturday, February 3. Continues until February 17.

Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Comments

  1. Francesca Vivanti says:

    I saw this play when it first opened and my only criticism was that of the script. It is unnecessarily long and repetitive. Nottage appears to doubt that those who had paid to see her play would understand it and they would have no knowledge of the horror which has been going on in the Congo for the past 30+ years. The scenes in which the young women speak about their terror would have much more affect had the repetitive scenes been shortened. How many times do you have to show/tell the audience that the girls are prostitutes and they spend all their time dancing and seducing the clients? Why was Act 2 Scene 1 even there? It added nothing to the story. What we needed more to learn about was the terrifying lives of those young girls BEFORE they came to the brothel. The cast did a great job with a difficult piece but the script is in desperate need of a dramaturg.

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