You know things are going badly when working at a whorehouse represents a step up in your living situation. But it beats being gang-raped by soldiers for five months, or having your uterus split open with a bayonet, which is the fate suffered by Salima and Sophie (respectively), two young Congalese women caught in the crossfire of a civil war that is tearing their country apart.
But at least they’re alive, and at the beginning of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined —which won this year’s Pulitzer, Obie, and Drama Desk Awards for Best Play, and is receiving an impressive, finely acted staging at Mixed Blood Theatre—the women are sold to a brothel by Sophie’s uncle, an itinerant salesman who knows exactly how bad things are: bad enough that he has to sell his niece to a madame for protection.
The proprietor of the brothel is Mama (played by Regina Williams), a strong, saucy force of a woman who is all business on the surface, but has compassion for the women who work for her, especially Sophie (Celeste Jones). Sophie is “ruined” for sex, but she is smart and can sing, and eventually finds her niche as the business’s bookkeeper and late-night singer. Each night, when the soldiers and miners make their way to Mama’s for respite from days spent digging and shooting, Sophie soothes the savage soldiers by singing romantic love songs. The periodic rat-a-tat-tat of automatic gunfire doesn’t stop her, or anyone else, because in this particular jungle the sound of an AK-47 is as common as the chirping of crickets.
A great deal of barbarity is alluded to in this play, but most of it occurs offstage, in the world beyond Mama’s Place. Her little shack in the jungle is the last outpost of civilization in this war-torn hellhole of a country. It’s the only place where at least a few rules still apply (Mama insists that soldiers check their bullets at the door), and some forms of pleasure—beer, sex, music, conversation—are still available. That, and she’s got the only pool table around. Mama survives by not taking sides (“Who will win? Who the hell cares?” she says), by treating soldiers on each side equally, and by making sure that her girls give her guests what they want. Superior customer service is the price the girls pay for protection and survival.
Regina Williams is marvelous as Mama. She sways and struts through her establishment, letting everyone know she’s in charge, and she’s quick to bark at anyone who dares defy her rules. But the real accomplishment of this production is that it so effectively reproduces the microcosm of insanity that exists under Mama’s roof and stretches out into the terrifying jungle beyond. The eleven-person cast is relatively large, but it has the feel of an ensemble that has worked together for years, which is a credit to Aditi Kapil's direction as well as the raw talent onstage, including Bruce Young, Ericka Ratcliffe, Paul Meshajian, Irungu Mutu, and Gavin Lawrence. The set, too, is superb.
As plays go, Ruined is fairly conventional (it’s essentially a one-room drama told in three acts), but the subject matter is timely and Mama’s complex survival strategy has enough layers and dimensions to make her place a serviceable metaphor for any country where civilization has broken down and good people are caught in the crossfire (Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Palestine, Lebanon, Pakistan, Darfur—take your pick). Allusions are made to the politics of diamond and copper, two of Congo’s richest natural resources, but understanding the politics isn’t necessary, because no one—not even the fighters—understands it completely. It’s more important to recognize that the fighting is not about nothing—it’s about the usual things: money and power—and that the social breakdown caused by the war has led to an environment of almost unthinkable barbarity. Inside Mama’s Place, the dynamic is reversed—here it’s about poverty and powerlessness, and good people doing what’s necessary to survive in a country where pretty much everything is ruined. The morality of it is disgusting, but it makes for some effective drama. Mixed Blood’s production is the first in the country after its prize-winning run in New York, and it's the meatiest, most engrossing play to hit a local stage in a while.
Ruined continues at Mixed Blood Theatre through Nov. 22.