Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined” is a stark yet deeply human look at war through the tragedy of its women

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage

In 2005, playwright Lynn Nottage embarked on her second journey to East Africa to collect narratives of refugee women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo—all of them survivors of war, rape and torture at the hands of armed forces.

Accompanied by her husband, her father and daughter, Nottage traveled throughout the Great Lakes region in northern Uganda, where the phenomenon of child soldiers had emerged in the mid-1980s when the National Resistance Army (a rebel movement led by current Ugandan president Joweri Kaguta Museveni) used children to spy and report on the enemy’s positions.

Nottage couldn’t enter the Congo to conduct her research. In a way going there did not really matter, since the war kept raging in the Ituri rainforest area and the Congolese refugees, who were the subject of her play Ruined, kept flowing over the border into Uganda.

The first time Nottage had traveled to East Africa (2004), she had interviewed Congolese women and girls in refugee camps. This time, she interviewed men. “It wasn’t Congolese men I talked to,” Nottage recalls. “In the northern part of Uganda, we met quite a few mobilized men from the Lords Resistance Army in one of the refugee camps. A lot of them divorced themselves of any responsibility, saying, ‘We put on this uniform. We were given these orders, we had to comply, but that’s not who we really are.’”

Nottage found her conversation with these African fighters fascinating. The Christian mindset that she had brought along was deeply challenged by the actual situations of rebels who had been brainwashed to believe that they were part of a national people’s army.

A Congolese woman whom playwright Lynn Nottage interviewed for "Ruined" | Photo by Tony Gerber

“I expected the men to be contrite, apologetic and ashamed,” she said. “I was shocked, because they could tell their stories divorced of emotion: ‘And we cut off their lips, and we—’ I went, ‘Okay.’ Also I was shocked that people would be around them listening to their stories. I thought to myself, ‘These are war criminals. Why isn’t someone arresting them?’ But  people were listening and not horrified in the way that I was horrified. We interviewed a couple of refugee camp members who had been victims of these Lords Resistance Army soldiers and who were coexisting with them. That coexistence really confused me.”

Most of today’s African fighters are not rebels with a cause. They don’t fight wars in the traditional sense, with simple political or military objectives; they aren’t interested in sacking capitals or taking control of cities or grabbing tracts of lands or setting up government ministries. In fact, they prefer the deep bush where it is far easier to commit brutal crimes.

These genocidaries—primarily men who fled from Rwanda to Congo, Rwandan rebels and Congolese army personnel—are sadistic predators. As Ruined naturalistically describes the situation in the Congo, what these rebels want are cash, guns and a license for workers to dig for resources such as the heat-resistant metal ore known as coltan, widely used in cell phones, laptops, video games and DVD players.

“Americans have a very deep investment in what happens in Africa and in the Congo,” Nottage says. “As long as they can extract coltan cheaply, we have a stake in the war that’s being fought there.”

Traditionally, American theatre’s claim for universal relevance has been through the dynamics of dysfunctional family drama. European theatre, on the other hand, prefers to communicate through an examination of history, ideas and poetic styles. Much of African drama pivots around forms of ritual performance and theatre of witness (the anti-apartheid plays of South African writer Athol Fugard, for example, to which Ruined owes its largest debt perhaps). This comparison helps illuminate why Ruined represents a new milestone in American playwriting.

Ruined dramatizes female resistance to war and genocidal rape. Raw, powerful, frequently harrowing, it gets inside the ghastly and often indescribable sexual atrocities committed in the Congo. It also  attempts to implicate those of us on the outside in a seemingly endless war that we are all doing our best to pretend isn’t happening and has nothing, anyway, to do with our lives. What’s amazing about Ruined—why it became the most decorated drama of 2009, including winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—is that it peers closely at some of the continent’s most intractable conflicts by giving the women of the Congo their own voices and by emphasizing that the play, as Nottage insists, is “written from a woman’s point of view.”

Congolese women whom playwright Lynn Nottage interviewed for "Ruined" | Photo by Tony Gerber

“One of the greatest challenges I faced in trying to tell the story of these women,” she adds, “is figuring out a way to end with optimism, to marry the horror with the humanity and tell a balanced tale that reflected the complexities of the Africa I experienced, which was not just the horror. There was also a great deal of joy and humor that I encountered, and I wanted to capture those textures.”

Ruined’s lattice-like stories take place in a cheerfully tawdry bar and brothel in a small mining town in the Congo. The bar owner (and madam), Mama Nadi, Ruined’s protagonist, needs only to stay in one place in the rainforest, since the war keeps tossing these women at her. Mama Nadi profits by taking no sides but her own. Nothing will ever stand in the way of business is her mantra. And yet the play tracks the crumbling of her façade of cynicism, just as it registers her growing affection for the women whom she believes ought to be grateful for the shelter, sanctuary and sustenance she provides (although she’s actually exploiting them).

The women of Ruined are fictional composites of real survivors of sexual violence whom Nottage met and interviewed in her travels. Mama Nadi’s community is a darker and more twisted version of an all-female Kenyan village, named Umoja, which has served as a sanctuary for young women escaping violence, female genital mutilation and forced marriage. Nottage says: “When I heard about Umoja, I was fascinated by its founder Rebecca Lolosoli, this woman who defied the odds and started a village of women who had all been shunned by their families or their husbands or had been forced out of their community because they had been raped or they rejected hysterectomy for a whole host of reasons.

“In the center of this arid northern region of Kenya, Rebecca managed to form a village committed to sustaining and nurturing this all-female community.” But Mama Nadi is not a stand-in for Rebecca. “Rebecca is a far more altruistic and nurturing woman than Mama,” Nottage says. “I was interested in exploring the darker aspects of a woman who has a very complex, serious relationship with the war, someone morally ambiguous, a woman who made difficult choices to survive.”

Quincy Tyler Bernstine as ‘Salima,’ Saidah Arrika Ekulona as ‘Mama Nadi,’ Chiké Johnson as ‘Soldier,’ and William Jackson Harper as ‘Soldier.’ 2009 Manhattan Theatre Club, NYC | Photo by Joan Marcus.

Some time in the 1990s, sexual violence against noncombatant women and girls during armed conflicts escalated to such global proportions that it became no longer merely an instrument of war—it also accelerated into a late 20th century epidemic that became widespread during conflicts in such countries as Bangladesh, Burma, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia and other such places in the world. Gender-based violence grew partly as a result of the breakdown in support systems, social norms and laws. It was systemic—a method to destabilize populations and advance ethnic cleansing with the intention to humiliate, shame, degrade and terrify a community or ethnic group.

From the perspective of world theatre, Ruined belongs to a new class of witness-based theatre that attempts to repair the integrity of the inner lives of women that sexual violence seeks to annihilate. In the world of the drama, artists wrestle with such questions as “What does it take to be human in an age where the extremes of terror, war and violence—especially sexual violence—become an end, not just a means?”

Examples of this new breed of drama, often penned by writers outside the conflicts, include dissident Croatian Slobodan Snajder’s Snakesskin, New Yorker Karen Malpede’s The Beekeeper’s Daughter (ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia), Stefanie Zadravec’s Honey Brown Eyes (about Serbs and Muslims) and Romanian Matei Visniec’s The Body of a Woman (about Bosnian women).

In the case of Ruined, although the consequences of gender inequality in Africa and the statistics they generate are huge, Nottage aspires to do more than document unbearable hardships. For the real-life Congolese women and girls Nottage portrays, gender inequality is far more elemental. If violence tries to turn a person into a thing, Nottage’s dramatic imagination attempts to turn this “thing” back into a human being.-RG

This essay first appeared in Applause magazine, the official theater program of the Denver Center Theatre Company which produced Ruined March 18 – April 20, 2023 at its Ricketson Theatre in Denver, Colorado.

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One thought on “Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined” is a stark yet deeply human look at war through the tragedy of its women

  1. Pingback: Other places | Superfluities Redux

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