by Danny Orendorff

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday November 21, 2008

Saidah Arrika Ekulona (Mama Nadi) in Ruined.
Saidah Arrika Ekulona (Mama Nadi) in Ruined.  (Source:Liz Lauren)

Four years ago playwright Lynn Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey traveled to East Africa 'in search of a play that would examine the impact of armed conflict on women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).'

The result of years of interviews, research, development, a Guggenheim grant, and a special commission from the Goodman Theater, Ruined is a politically engaging, heartfelt work that surprises its audience and should more than gratify the many people who partook in its creation.

Telling a story of the brutal atrocities committed against Congolese women during more than a decade of unending, ever-shifting, directionless conflict in the Congo basin as well as throughout the neighboring regions of Rwanda and Uganda is, to say the least, a tall order.

Which story does one tell? What place should one choose as a setting? Can, or should, it include humor? Would it be appropriate to include scenes of brutality?

Any lingering unease or anxiety over what we're in for instantly disappears at the first appearance of the ever-charming and commanding actress Saidah Arrika Ekulona, confidently portraying the central-character of "Ruined," Mama Nadi.

While there are moments throughout the play where the characters deliver insightful commentary on the absurd politics of the situation they face, the play ultimately comes to be about, of all things, love.

Nottage sets her story at Mama Nadi's canteen (or brothel? or safe-house?), where all the atrocities and uncertainties of the conflict merge not because it's any politically important place in particular, but because it is so ordinary - a meeting place for those victims and observers of a war so brutal that brutality itself has become ordinary.

Mama Nadi must negotiate the precarious position of being many things to many people: a female business owner in a place where women are often viewed as the property of men -- things to be stolen or defaced in the process of warring upon each other. She is also a protector/madam of refugee women, a flirt with the local poet and tradesman, and a hostess to soldiers coming from who knows where and fighting for who knows what (a point effectively underscored by often double-casting many of the male performers).

Mama Nadi lives by a careful balance of pride, cynicism, and rage - the overlapping layers of which Ekulona expertly reveals one by one with increasing emotional complexity.

"Ruined" also tells the stories of three refugee women who find refuge with Mama Nadi: fiery Josephine (Cherise Boothe), tragic Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), and Sophie (Condola Phyleia Rahad) - a girl who had been brutalized so badly before arriving at Mama Nadi's, that she is considered 'ruined.'

Each of these three character has a compelling story about how the war has impacted their lives and bodies, and each actress performs their character with utter grace - particularly Bernstine, whose portrayal of Salima is a real eye-opener.

Despite their circumstances, the women are shown dreaming, dancing, singing and even reading romance novels. It is in such moments as these that Nottage shows remarkable originality.

"Ruined" could have so easily been a play depicting atrocity after atrocity. Instead, it is a story about real people we come to deeply consider, learn from, and care about. In that moving personalization of a distant war and its victims, Nottage triumphs as both artist and activist

Ruined plays at the Goodman Theatre’s Owen Theatre now through December 7. Tickets are $10-$39 and can be purchased online at or by calling 312.443.3800. The Goodman is located at 170 N. Dearborn in the loop.

Danny Orendorff is an arts journalist and organizer in Chicago. He can be reached at Dan[dot]Orendorff[at]Gmail[dot]com