Ruined, Berkeley

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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Wendell B. Franklin, Carla Duren, Zainab Jah and Tonye Patano star in “Ruined” at Berkeley Rep.
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By Lynn Nottage
Directed by Liesl Tommy
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
March 3-April 10, 2011

Got coltan? You bet you do, in your cell phone and any number of electronic devices you use every day. Know where it comes from? The Congo, that mineral-rich, conflict-torn land where it is mined under near–slave-labor conditions and its possession is one element in an ongoing war that has claimed more lives in any conflict in Africa since WWII. Possession of the land and its riches is only one aspect of this conflict. Lynn Nottage’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize–winning “Ruined” examines the situation from another point of view, that of the women who have been repeatedly raped and brutalized by combatants on both sides, their bodies turned into a kind of battleground by men who feel entitled to assert their personal and political power.

It’s not pretty, but Nottage (see video below) has managed to inject enough of the Congolese zest for life and humor into her story to make it palatable and actually enjoyable. It even has, improbably, a happy ending—probably not for the majority but at least for a few. It’s an important play, big and messy and sprawling as its subject, and Berkeley Rep should be congratulated for putting it on, in conjunction with the La Jolla Playhouse and the Huntington Theatre, in a finely tuned production directed by Liesl Tommy.

Mama Nadi (a formidable Tonye Patano) runs a whorehouse/cantina in the middle of the jungle (brightly colored set design by Clint Ramos). A tough businesswoman, she has survived by catering to soldiers—on both sides—miners and a couple of entrepreneurs, justifying herself by providing room and board and a “better life than they would have out there” to her girls. The two newest recruits, Salima (Pascale Armand) and Sophie (Carla Duren) are foisted upon Mama by a traveling salesman. Christian (Oberon K.A. Adjepong), the salesman, keeps Mama in condoms, cigarettes, Belgian chocolates and the other necessities of life. He also is hopelessly in love with her—with the accent on hopeless. Their caustic romantic banter is one of the lighter elements of the play.

The girls he has rescued have been abducted and repeatedly violated—one of them, Sophie, permanently mutilated and traumatized. Rejected by their families and villages as “ruined,” the girls have nowhere to go. This is, essentially, their story. Sophie may be unable to ply Mama’s trade but, educated and talented, she sings for her supper and keeps the books. Salima, who finds herself pregnant as a result of her ordeal, can only hide from the soldier/husband (Jason Bowen) who has come looking for her. A third prostitute, Josephine (Zainab Jah), more sophisticated and possessed of a wealthy patron (Joseph Kamal) looks down on the newcomers. But eventually, all four women are united in a sisterhood of suffering and understanding and moments of unexpected joy.

All the performers are excellent and include Wendell B. Franklin as the leader of the rebel forces and Adrian Roberts as Commander Osembenga, his imperious enemy on the government side, as well as an assortment of soldiers and miners who drop in regularly for a little R&R. There is some terrific music, written by Broken Chord, sung by Duren and played by musicians Alvin Terry and Adesoji Odukogbe, as well as a few terrific dances, choreographed by Randy Duncan. Unfortunately, the words are not always intelligible. But, like the rough diamond that Mama keeps hidden away as an insurance policy for the future, that’s a small flaw in a near-flawless production.

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