Ruined's Mother Congo — and Mother Courage

By Monty Arnold
20 Apr 2009

<I>Ruined</I> stars Condola Rashad, Cherise Boothe and Quincy Tyler Bernstine.
Ruined stars Condola Rashad, Cherise Boothe and Quincy Tyler Bernstine.
Photo by Joan Marcus
Lynn Nottage's acclaimed play, Ruined, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, exposes the horrors of the Congolese war and the bravery of the women subjected to its brutality.


Chicago, from where came the last accurate Pulitzer Prize prediction for drama (August: Osage County), has started with the Pulitzer pompons again — now for Lynn Nottage's Ruined, which world-premiered there in November and opened Feb. 10 at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I at City Center. Under the circumstances — a play protesting a preventable war-in-progress — a Nobel Peace Prize isn't entirely out of line, either.

It could surprise you to know that a decade-long civil war in the mineral-rich heart of Africa — in the ill-named Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) — has produced more casualties than in Iraq, Afghanistan and Darfur combined: five million, and counting. It is the deadliest conflict since World War II, and there is no end in sight.

Originally, Nottage was planning a play on the war in Iraq, but newspaper reports rechanneled her focus to Africa, where she and her director, Kate Whoriskey, went in the summer of 2004. They interviewed women coming over the border from the Congo, fleeing atrocities, and these anguished narratives inform their Ruined. "We were expecting horror stories, but we weren't prepared for this extent of brutality."

Up to a point, Nottage knew what she was diving into. After three years of graduate school at Yale School of Drama and four years as the national press officer for Amnesty International, she says, "I became intimately engaged with human rights abuses. My husband [Tony Gerber] said, 'This play is sort of a perfect marriage of the two sides of your brain.' And it is a combination of those experiences and all the skills that I have. I have been slowly trying to get to the point where I could write this kind of play.

"I have to say the situation there is so complicated and chaotic that, if I tried to take on the whole thing, it would be epic — I'd still be writing it — so I decided to focus on one war: the war against women. There are many wars being fought, but this seems the most inexplicable — and the one most easily stopped — and yet it continues."

The specific target in this war is women, and the weapon of choice is rape and sexual abuse. A woman is "ruined" when she is raped with bayonets and other foreign objects, leaving her a victim of genital mutilation, incapable of controlling her bladder or bowels. The rapes are committed in public to destroy the culture and humiliate the community, and victims are then rejected by family and villagers alike.

"I went to Uganda thinking, 'Oh, wouldn't it be wonderful to do a modern adaptation of Mother Courage set in the Congo?' — there are similarities between The Hundred Years' War and the Congolese war — but when I got there and discovered there was a story going on there that had not reached the light of day — a story that's so specific to that region — it seemed wrong for me to overlay some sort of European construct on it. That's why a strict adaptation of Mother Courage was no longer appropriate."

Bertolt Brecht's play of war and commerce was, naturally, unknown to these Congolese refugees — but not the words in the title. "When we threw the title out and just said, 'What does this mean to you?' — their eyes would fill with tears, and they would say, 'Mother Courage, yes!' One thing I took away from this experience — and it's why I wanted to write this play — is that these women, even though they've lost their families, their land, almost everything, could still find a way to transcend and rebuild their lives. It was a magnificent gift I received from them. I can never again complain about my life because they could conjure something out of nothing."


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