Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, is a poignant, intelligent, drama that explores the diminishment and degradation of women in the midst of a patriarchy. Set in a Mama Nadi’s brothel, in a small mining town in the Republic of Congo, Ruined opens when Christian (the Poet) sells a couple of girls to Mama Nadi, one of them his niece, Sophie. The other girl, Salima, has run away from her husband. Sophie is “ruined” which (as you might have guessed) means she has lost her virginity. So she is spared the indignity of selling her body, and Mama Nadi finds other things for her to do. Mama Nadi is not without her kindnesses, but she is a business woman, and a survivor. As the story is revealed we see how she and her girls are forced to subsist in the midst of political upheaval and civil war. But mostly they are subject to the whims of the men. Miners and soldiers.
It is sadly no surprise that in unenlightened cultures (maybe not so different from America) that a woman’s value turns on her physical beauty, virginity and ability to use her “market value” to her advantage. The idea that a girl who still has her hymen intact is somehow a special prize is, of course, repugnant but this is the world they inhabit. Women are reduced to what they bring to sexual transactions. The stories the girls share are deeply troubling, horrific. It’s not only that they see themselves as commodities or assets. But Salima has lost the ability to respond to a husband who only wants her back, despite the damage she’s endured. Mama Nadi raises the question, like Bertolt Brecht or the character of Constance in McCabe and Mrs. Miller of whether there is more dignity in being a sex worker (where there is at least some control) rather than the servitude of marriage. Before the final curtain, though, it is Sophie who will have the most profound epiphany.
Lynn Nottage has crafted a subtle, original, savvy exploration of what it means to get by when you are immersed in a sense of perpetual danger. For all the serious rhetoric of soldiers and commanders, we get the distinct impression that their pursuits are vapid and amount to one pissing contest after another. That they subjugate women because it gives them the opportunity play despot. [How appropriate in light of the current presidential race.] Women must take these idiots seriously because they have no choice. There is nothing more dangerous in this world than a fool with power. When Sophie spits on one of their boots, you want to cheer, but you can’t because you’re terrified for her. Like the best playwrights Nottage doesn’t tell us what to believe, she demonstrates the ugly disgraces prevailing in the world, and lets us decide for ourselves. Ruined is splendid, life-changing theatre.
Bishop Arts Theatre Center presents Ruined, playing October 20th-30th, 2016. 215 South Tyler, Dallas, Texas 75208. 214-948-0716. www.bishopartstheare.org