MICHEL MARTIN, host:
For the next couple of conversations, we'd like to warn you that the subject matter might be difficult for young children and sensitive listeners because we're going to talk about the vicious abuse that women and girls have suffered in some parts of the world because of violent conflict.
Over the years, Americans have become aware of the situation in and around the Democratic Republic of Congo. This West African nation has lurched from crisis to crisis since the genocide in neighboring Rwanda in 1994 when ethnic Hutu slaughtered hundreds of thousands of members of the Tutsi minority, and then many went to exile in the neighboring Congo.
Devastated by the conflict in both countries are the women who have long fallen victim to horrific violence, sexual and otherwise. Now, many journalists and activists who have tried to tell these women's stories, and now a new play is trying to bring the struggles of these women to life. It's called "Ruined." And joining us now to talk about it are the award-winning playwright, Lynn Nottage, and Saidah Arrika Ekulona, who plays the leading character of Mama Nadi. They're with us now, and thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ms. LYNN NOTTAGE (Playwright): Thank you for having us.
Ms. SAIDAH ARRIKA EKULONA (Actress, "Ruined"): Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: Lynn, how did you come up with the idea of this play?
Ms. NOTTAGE: The play began in a conversation with the director Kate Whoriskey. We were reading headlines about the brutal war that was going on in the Congo, and one of the things that I found was missing from the stories was the human side of the story. We know the statistics, we know of the brutality, but what I didn't know was who were these women who were victims of these human rights abuses. And so I set out to go and find them, quite literally.
MARTIN: Well, why don't you give us short description of the play.
Ms. NOTTAGE: The play is set in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the simmering conflict there, and it centers around a character named Mama Nadi who runs a bar that caters to miners and soldiers who are in the process of battling for control of the local mine. Mama provides protection to a group of young women who have been sexually abused by soldiers and driven from their homes and from their communities.
MARTIN: Now, Saidah, talk to me about the character of Mama Nadi. She runs a small canteen. As some might guess, it offers, you know, a meal and a drink but also the company of women. Tell me a little bit about it, and then I'm going to play a short clip.
Ms. EKULONA: Well, Mama Nadi is first and foremost a survivor. I think she's one of the most thoroughly developed three-dimensional characters I have ever come across. She is loving, yet she is very brusque. She can be mean, yet she can be compassionate. She's just everything. But most of all, she is a survivor, and she will not let the men around - the rebels or the government soldiers - take advantage of her.
MARTIN: I want to talk a little bit more about that, but I'm going to play a short clip. In this scene, Mama Nadi finds out that one of the girls, Sophie, who works for her - right? - has been stealing from her. Let's play a short clip. Here it is.
(Soundbite of play "Ruined")
Ms. EKULONA: (As Mama Nadi) So tell me what you are planning to do with my money because it's my money. I worked.
Ms. CONDOLA RASHAD (Actress): (As Sophie) It's not what you think.
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 bad luck but I think, no, she a smart girl. Maybe Mama won't have to do everything by herself. You read books, you speak like white man, but is this who you want to be?
Ms. RASHAD: (As Sophie) I'm sorry, Mama.
Ms. EKULONA: (As Mama Nadi) No. No. I'll put you out on your ass. I will make you walk naked down that road. Is that what you want? What did you think you were going to do with my money?
Ms. RASHAD: (As Sophie) Mama, please.
Ms. EKULONA: (As Mama Nadi) Huh? Huh? What were you going to do?
Ms. RASHAD: (As Sophie) It's that white one that's coming here. Said there's an operation.
Ms. EKULONA: (As Mama Nadi) Don't you lie to me.
Ms. RASHAD: (As Sophie) Listen, please, listen. We can repair the damage.
MARTIN: Saidah, what is the damage that this operation will repair?
Ms. EKULONA: The damage is the fistula, which is what's happening to a lot of women in the Congo. And what is it is that men are taking objects such as baretas, sticks, a lot of different objects, and they are inserting them into the women's vaginal area, and so therefore the women are incontinent all of the time, and there is a very foul smell, and it can actually make them sterile. These operations are able to...
MARTIN: I just want to establish for people who aren't aware of this because some people are very aware of this and some are not that this is a form, is a very horrific form - I mean, all rape is horrific, but this is a...
Ms. EKULONA: Yes, it is.
MARTIN: A vicious form of rape that is essentially sexual torture.
Ms. EKULONA: It is sexual torture. It's also gang rape. Women as young as three and as old as in their 80s are having this done. And no woman is safe, quite frankly. And it affects the way that you walk. It affects the way that you sit down. It affects everything. It affects your movement. It affects the core of the woman, the centralness(ph) of the woman where we are our purest form. And so therefore, we are very vulnerable after that happens. And so these women are walking around without any sense of self and sense of protection, and that's where I think Mama comes in. Mama comes in and helps them gain a sense of self, even if it is via prostitution. But they are being fed, they are being taken care of, and they know they won't die. And they know they won't be alone.
MARTIN: Yeah, I wanted to - now, I'm glad you talk about that because Mama's character is not - I mean, she's not Mother Theresa, let's say. This is not...
Ms. EKULONA: No, she's not.
MARTIN: This is not an NGO...
Ms. EKULONA: Mm hmm.
MARTIN: Where she is just sheltering these women. So what is her motivation? How do you understand her?
Ms. EKULONA: I think that Mama's real motivation is taking care of herself. You know, she's - she has a line. If things are good, everyone gets a little. If things are bad, Mama eats first. That is the most important thing. Now that being said, it doesn't mean that she lacks any compassion. It doesn't mean that she lacks any fire. But she does have boundaries, and they're very strict boundaries. And she'll let you know very quickly, no, not with me, not here.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with the lead of the play, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, and playwright Lynn Nottage about the new play, "Ruined."
Lynn, let's talk about another character from the play, Sophie. Can you tell us a little bit about her?
Ms. NOTTAGE: Sophie is a student who finds herself caught in the fray. She is raped by a group of soldiers and is rejected by her family, and her uncle, who is Christian, who is a good friend of Mama Nadi, finds her and brings her to Mama Nadi's place, which is a brothel.
MARTIN: Is Sophie working there?
Ms. NOTTAGE: Sophie does eventually work at the brothel. She works as a singer but she is not a sexual worker.
MARTIN: One of the points of the play, though, is for the women to talk about what they had experienced, and this is not easy for them to think about. But let me just play a short clip where Sophie is trying to talk about what's happened to her.
(Soundbite of play "Ruined")
Unidentified Woman: Is that what you think?
Ms. RASHAD (As Sophie): 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.
MARTIN: Lynn, what was it like for you to visit with these women? I mean, you've been researching this play for a very long time, as I understand it, and writing it and trying to do justice to these women's stories. What was it like for you to hear these women's stories?
Ms. NOTTAGE: Well, for me, part of the reason that I wanted to go to Africa was to hear and witness what was going on with these women. And it's emotional now as I'm talking about it. And the very first interview we did was with a woman who was a chief's daughter. And she was describing men who entered into her home and brutalized her and her family. And I quite literally felt as though my heart was going to jump out of my body. I didn't know that I could stand to listen to the entire interview, but I knew that it was very important to hear her narrative from beginning to end because she wanted to bear witness and she wanted me to hear it.
MARTIN: Your previous works have explored difficult times in the life of - particularly of African-Americans, and kind of explored their pains and their joys. And one of the things that I think a lot of people appreciate about your work is that as tough as the lives many people may have, as difficult as their experiences may have been, there's always humor. There's always some joy. How did you figure out how to put some joy in this play?
Ms. NOTTAGE: Well, it took me a moment to figure out what I wanted to write about and how I was going to write about it. But what I came to the conclusion was that I had to explore this full spectrum of human emotions, which means that there's humor and there's violence and there's love and there's ugliness.
And one of the things that really opened up this story for me is when I was in Uganda interviewing refugee women, I took a photograph with a group of them. And on that particular day, I happened to be wearing an African peda(ph) dress that I had gotten in Senegal. And when I came home and I was looking through the photographs, I quite literally couldn't find myself immediately, and I realized, oh, I'm telling a universal story. I'm telling my story. And as such, I think it became easier for me to access that full spectrum of human emotions.
MARTIN: Finally, a question to both of you. What do you hope people will take away from this play? Saidah?
Ms. EKULONA: I hope that people are able to not only understand what's going on with the whole situation of the war in the Congo but what's happening and how it affects women and men because I do know from some of the gentlemen in the play that it's difficult for them to sometimes play the characters because the men are - have been traumatized by this, too. If you're just a farmer and your wife is suddenly taken and she's been a concubine for someone for four months and she shows back up and the village rejects her, what does that do to you? Do you miss your wife? Do you try to go find your wife? Suddenly, oh, now you're a soldier. Who trained you to be a soldier? You have no choice but to follow these rules, I guess you could call them.
And I also want them to just know that love can actually help you through anything. I know it sounds idealistic and everything, but with everything that goes on in this play, to have someone that you love around you, that can move mountains.
MARTIN: Lynn, what about you?
Ms. NOTTAGE: Well, I was really hoping is that they'll engage with the issues, that when they read the newspaper that there'll be a human story connected to it, that it won't just be statistics, that they won't be distanced because I know when I read the newspaper, it's very easy for me to turn to the next page and quickly forget what's going on. And hopefully, when they're reading about the Congo, they'll be thinking about Mama Nadi and Sophie and Josephine and all of the characters that I've drawn in the play.
MARTIN: Lynn Nottage is the playwright of the new play, "Ruined," depicting the lives of women affected by the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York. We were also joined by Saidah Arrika Ekulona who plays Mama Nadi, the lead character of the play. She joined us from Chicago. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ms. NOTTAGE: Thank you.
Ms. EKULONA: Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: "Ruined" opened off-Broadway last night at the Manhattan Theater Club. To watch scenes from the play and read an excerpt from the script, please go to our Web site at npr.org/tellmemore.