Playwright: Eleanor Bergstein. At: The Cadillac Palace, 151 W. Randolph
Phone: 312-902-1400; $35-$100
Runs through: Jan. 17
BY CATEY SULLIVAN
Think of something that's ruined and you think, perhaps, of a pair of socks, a dress botched by the cleaners or an alfresco lunch hit by rain. But as Lynne Nottage's powerful new drama makes known, 'ruined' is also something that happens with horrifying frequency to tens of thousands of African woman.
In Ruined, we get a snapshot of those women—females who can be as young as three and as old as 93, gang-raped and violated with bayonets, blocks of wood and broken bottles. If they're lucky, they survive. If they're really lucky, they make it to a doctor who can fit them with a colostomy bag. The physical aftermath—the total loss of control over bodily functions—is only part of a ruined woman's trauma. Survivors are routinely cast out of their communities and disowned by their relatives, blamed for bringing shame to their families and villages.
As a lecture or a symposium, the issues Nottage broaches in Ruined would urgent and compelling. As a drama, they are galvanizing. Under the direction of Kate Whorisky, Nottage's story is also riveting.
Nottage's characters aren't mere representations of a problem—they are human faces whose stories sweep you up without mercy. And while it may seem inevitable that Ruined must be a grim portrait of human ugliness, the piece is rich with humor, hope and even love. It's difficult to overstate what Nottage has accomplished: Ruined is a play with a message—one as strong as they come. Yet, far from being didactic, it's an engrossing and multi-layered piece of storytelling.
As for that story: It's set in the Republic of Congo, in Mama Nadi's ( Saidah Arrika Ekulona ) brothel. Here, rebels, freedom fighters, businessmen, terrorists and miners ( it's often impossible to tell them apart ) come to escape the seemingly futile civil war.
The production is extraordinary throughout, but contains two scenes that will leave you breathless. One is a dance, the other a monologue. As Josphine, one of the brothel's women, Cherise Boothe offers the dance, a staggering performance of anger beyond the most murderous realms of rage, of joy at being alive and of defiance that despite everything, she will not be broken. Quincy Tyler Bernstine has the monologue. As Salima, another woman in the brothel, her words are beyond brutal. Bernstine makes them both harrowing to hear and impossible to tune out.
One suspects the passage comes from the interviews Nottage and Whorisky did while in Rwandan refugee camps several years ago. Surely, no one could think of anything this heartbreaking on her own.
Yet it would be a grave disservice to paint Ruined as a portrait of horrors; it is so very far from that. Despite everything, it is an affirmation of life and a call to action.