Ruined's Mother Congo — and Mother Courage

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.

Condola Rashad, Cherise Boothe and Quincy Tyler Bernstine in Ruined
Condola Rashad, Cherise Boothe and Quincy Tyler Bernstine in Ruined (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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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."

The only other play to address contemporary genocide came last year — J.T. Rogers' The Overwhelming, which took place in neighboring Rwanda on the eve of the massacre of a million. "That play," says Nottage, "talked about something that had happened in the past, so the audience is looking back at history. With this, the issues are unfolding as we're watching the play so the audience has, I almost feel, a responsibility after the play. 'How can we continue to live on this earth and not somehow feel responsible for what's going on?' is a question everyone has to ask themselves — particularly in the Congo because we're beneficiaries of the resources.

"The war that's being waged in the Congo right now is a war being waged for foreign minerals — cassiterite, coltan, copper, gold. Cassiterite and coltan are used to fuel our cell phones and laptops. We're incredibly dependent on the Congo, so we can't turn our backs to what's going on, because we are partially responsible for that war."

Just before leaving Uganda, Nottage posed for a snapshot with some Congolese women. "When I got back home and saw the picture, it took me a moment to find myself because I was in the back row, wearing a colorful African dress I had bought in Senegal similar to what the women were wearing. At that moment, I understood what play I had to write, and I thought, 'There, but for the grace of God, go I.'"

Said another way (by John Donne): "Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee."

Saidah Arrika Ekulona and Russell Gebert Jones
Saidah Arrika Ekulona and Russell Gebert Jones