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Lynn Nottage's 'Ruined' finds life and horror in war-torn Congo

The African American playwright's newest, playing in New York, is about rape used as a weapon in an ongoing conflict.

April 19, 2009|Patrick Pacheco

NEW YORK — In the course of writing a new play, Lynn Nottage sat in despair at her Brooklyn apartment as she looked over reams of research she had accumulated. The playwright had just spent two months at a Uganda refugee camp, interviewing women who had been raped and brutalized in the fierce Civil War that has wracked the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo for decades.

"I thought to myself, 'This play will be the ruin of me,' " she recalls of the process of wrestling the material into a dramatic narrative. "I knew I wanted to tell a story that was not agitprop, that was universal, epic and unabashedly theatrical. Something truthful and yet joyful. And I didn't know how I was ever going to do that."

The enthusiastic critical reception for Nottage's drama, aptly titled "Ruined," indicates that she has succeeded. Life is brimming, if hanging by a slender thread, among the denizens of a Congolese bar/bordello: war profiteers, Kalashnikov-bearing rebels, a half-dead parrot and a hard-charging madam and her girls. The latest additions to Mama Nadi's "house" are two grim casualties: Salima, a young woman repeatedly raped and cast out by her husband, and her friend, Sophie, a literate, sad-faced 18-year-old who has been genitally mutilated by rebel soldiers, "ruined" in the parlance of the day. While Nottage unflinchingly tells what she calls their "undertold stories," there is nonetheless joy, humor, music and, perhaps most controversially, romance in "Ruined."

"A journey into the deepest, darkest disquietude . . . this remarkable drama has the density of lived experience, rare for a play in any era," Michael Feingold wrote in the Village Voice in February when "Ruined" opened off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club after a world premiere at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. The limited engagement has since been extended until May 10. For the 44-year-old Nottage, it is arguably the high point in an eclectic career that has included dramas revolving around a turn-of-the-century New York seamstress ("Intimate Apparel"), a high-toned public relations executive on the skids ("Fabulation"), political activists bombing an FBI building ("Por'knockers"), and a romance between Queen Marie-Therese and a black dwarf in the court of Louis XIV ("Las Meninas").

"I'm a schizophrenic writer," says the affable Nottage over lunch at the West Bank Cafe, a theatrical Manhattan hangout. Married to filmmaker Tony Gerber, she is balancing motherhood (they have a young daughter, Ruby), social activism and a prolific career in the course of which, she notes, she always writes two plays at the same time. She concurrently wrote "Ruined" and "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," a play about an aging starlet and her black maid in 1930s Hollywood who seek validation in a "Gone With the Wind"-type epic. "I need a release from whatever I'm writing," she explains.

A common thread throughout Nottage's disparate works is the celebration of strong, forceful women, a genetic coding she inherited as a fourth-generation African American Brooklynite. In fact, the death of her mother, Ruby, a schoolteacher, in 1998 and the birth of her daughter marked an emotional sea change in Nottage that led to "Ruined." "I always thought of my mother as a warrior woman, and I became interested in pursuing stories of women who invent lives in order to survive," the playwright says. "I felt part of a larger community more than ever."

Nottage says that as she read reports of the impact on women in the Congolese conflict, she was moved to bridge the gap between the awful headlines and the safety and comfort of her Brooklyn Heights apartment. To that end she traveled to a refugee camp in Uganda in 2004 and again in 2005 with Kate Whoriskey, a frequent collaborator and the director of "Ruined."


African issues

The playwright and director interviewed more than 30 Congolese women, most of whom talked because they felt it might provide a catharsis. "It was important to unburden themselves," she says. "They wanted to go on record and they wanted to visualize a better existence for themselves. It was about healing and having the courage to go on."

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