The statistics coming out of the Democratic Republic of Congo are chilling: nearly 2 million women and girls raped, with the list of victims growing at a rate of almost one per minute, according to estimates from a study published in the American Journal of Public Health last year. Those numbers represent people whose tragic stories illustrate so much — the cost of war and greed, a genocide ignored by too many, the challenge of continuing to live after bodies and families are shattered.
Lynn Nottage’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined, which will open at GableStage on Saturday, illuminates those stories with compassion and artful humor, fiercely reflected truth, and insight that cuts to the bone, as the best drama inevitably does. In telling the stories of an 18-year-old whose body was “ruined” by a bayonet, a 19-year-old shunned by her family after being captured and repeatedly raped, a pragmatic prostitute who dreams of escape, and a wily bar owner/madam who walks a tightrope of survival in a dangerous town, Nottage makes a distant horror all too real.
Her searing, enlightening play is an important piece of stage art, a drama that has helped spur real-life fundraising and assistance for some of an endless conflict’s many victims. Yet it is also a gift for talented, underutilized performers who still — yes, in 2012 — find themselves not cast if a part isn’t written specifically for a black actor. Ruined showcases the work of 13 actors, 12 of them black, at an award-winning company.
Lela Elam, a South Florida actress and Carbonell Award nominee for her work in Nottage’s Intimate Apparel at GableStage, is preparing to take on one of the most challenging roles of her career, playing the brothel operator Mama Nadi in Ruined. She pinpoints one of the reasons audiences embrace Nottage’s work: “She tells stories that are real, but they seem unbelievable.”
When Nottage began working on her play in 2004, she had the idea of doing a contemporary version of Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 play Mother Courage and Her Children . But when she talked to Congolese women in a Ugandan refugee camp, her notion of what the play should be changed.
“ All of the women I talked to had been raped,” Nottage says from her home in Brooklyn. “I knew if I were to tell the story of women in war, the story would have to shift. I asked them, ‘What do the words ‘Mother Courage’ mean to you?’ Their voices were soft, but they said the words summed up everything they had to do to survive.”
Nottage set out to write a play “that isn’t didactic or preachy” but thought the issues she depicts would change. That hasn’t been the case. Ruined is as timely and truthful today as it was when Nottage began writing it.
In Ruined, as in the Congo, endemic rape, mutilations, abductions and murder are used as weapons in a war that victimizes women and men, girls and boys, the very old and the unimaginably young. Government forces and rebels alike operate amid political chaos in a place where the fight over vast reserves of coltan, a mineral used in making everything from cellphones to laptops, has led to the kinds of atrocities described so painfully in the play.
Why, the GableStage actors are asked, aren’t Americans more aware of and concerned about the situation in Congo?