JACKI LYDEN, Host:
There's a powerful new drama opening off-Broadway next week. It's from noted playwright Lynn Nottage, called "Ruined." It takes an unflinching look at the women brutalized in the ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jeff Lunden has the story and just a warning, some of the language and situations described are pretty harsh. Here's Jeff.
JEFF LUNDEN: Lynn Nottage says she wanted to bring something from far away right into the laps of the contemporary audience.
Ms. LYNN NOTTAGE (Playwright, "Ruined"): It's very easy when we're reading those articles on the 20th page of The New York Times, to distance ourselves and say, it's someone else. But I wanted to create an emotional bridge so that when people are reading those articles, they feel that they're connecting with living, breathing human beings, not just statistics.
LUNDEN: "Ruined" is set in a bar and brothel in a mining town in the Congo rainforest. The customers are miners and either rebels or government soldiers, whoever controls this particular spot of land on any given day. And all the women who work there have been ruined.
Ms. NOTTAGE: What we're finding that's peculiar to this conflict is that women are being raped in large numbers and not only are they being raped, but they're being brutalized, and rape has become a weapon of war.
(Soundbite of play "Ruined")
Ms. SAIDAH ARRIKA EKULONA: (as Mama Nadi) There is a war going on, and it is unsafe for a woman alone now. We know this. It is better this way, here.
Unidentified Woman #1: But I wonder...
Ms. EKULONA: (as Mama Nadi) You want to walk there? You want to be thrown bottle there? Why would you go Selema, huh, your village, your husband? How much goodness did they show you?
Unintelligible Woman #1: Why did you say this?
Ms. EKULONA: (as Mama Nadi) I'm sorry. But you know it's true.
Unidentified Woman #1: You don't have to be with them. Sometimes, their hands are so full of rage that it hurts to be touched.
LUNDEN: Playwright Lynn Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey began working on "Ruined" several years ago, when they decided to do a contemporary adaptation of "Mother Courage," German playwright Bertolt Brecht's indictment of war and war profiteering. They both flew to Uganda, across the border from the Congo, to interview refugee women about their war experiences.
(Soundbite of "Ruined")
Ms. SALIMA MUZIN(ph): (Through Translator) My name is Salima Muzima.
LUNDEN: Director Kate Whoriskey.
Ms. KATE WHORISKEY (Director, "Ruined"): The very first image was that they were all beautifully dressed and we were in a car and they were all walking towards Amnesty International, so that was an interesting image of these 15 women who were just - like the vision was so colorful and beautiful. And then we heard these stories, and the stories were devastating. And to hear them back-to-back - and for me, I didn't actually recognize that the rape had such physical consequences. I always thought of the psychological, but not the physical consequences. So, it was hard to hear over and over how ruined these women's bodies were.
(Soundbite of "Ruined")
Ms. EKULONA: (as Mama Nadi) While I am singing, I am praying that one day, the pain will be gone. But what those men did to me lives inside of my body. Every step I take, I feel them in me, punching me. And it will be that way for the rest of my life.
LUNDEN: Because it's a war where women's bodies are part of the battleground, Nottage decided to make her "Mother Courage," her war profiteer, the owner of a brothel.
Ms. NOTTAGE: I was very interested in the different levels of exploitation, and so we begin with financial exploitation, and then I went to move with sexual exploitation, so I think the brothel became that perfect venue with which to explore these issues.
LUNDEN: Actress Saidah Arrika Ekulona plays Mama Nadi, the brothel owner.
Ms. EKULONA: She's sexy, she's smart, she's witty, she's sassy, she's a survivor and she's nurturing. And then, she can also be very off-putting.
LUNDEN: And Mama has her rules.
Ms. EKULONA: If things are good, everyone gets a little. If things are bad, then Mama eats first. That is the ultimate survivor.
LUNDEN: Mama's other rule is that she'll serve anyone as long as they check their gun at the door, says Lynn Nottage.
Ms. NOTTAGE: So that when you come in to Mama Nadi's place, essentially you're laying aside the war. But what we see in the course of the play is that that war begins to creep into the bar, and she's really incapable of keeping it at bay.
(Soundbite of "Ruined")
Ms. EKULONA (As Mama Nadi): So, tell me what you are planning to do with my money, because it's my money.
Unidentified Woman #: I - I...
Ms. EKULONA (As Mama Nadi): I - I - I what?
Unidentified Woman#1: Not what you think, Mama...
Ms. EKULONA (As Mama Nadi): Oh no, you are not going to run away with my money. Take her in, give her food, your uncle begged me. What am I supposed to do? I trust you. Everyone say, she's bad luck. But I think no, she's a smart girl. Maybe Mama won't have to do everything by herself. You read books. You speak like wise man, but is this who you want to be?
Unintelligible Woman #1: I'm sorry, Mama, but...
Ms. EKULONA (As Mama Nadi): No!
LUNDEN: Even though much of "Ruined's" story is harrowing, director Kate Whoriskey says it's also about the amazing human capacity to adapt.
Ms. WHORISKEY: Each story has a lot of trauma inside of it, but it also has a lot of hope and love and humor and hypocrisy and betrayal, and all these other elements. So, we're really hoping for it to be a complex experience.
LUNDEN: "Ruined" opens at the Manhattan Theater Club off-Broadway this Tuesday. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
LYDEN: On our Web site, the cast and creative team talk more about the challenges and rewards of staging "Ruined," and you can watch a short scene from the play. That's all on npr.org.
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