"Survival is the only art I recognize."
— Mama Nadi in Ruined, by Lynn Nottage
It's tough to watch this play—about the daily horrors of life at a bar and whorehouse in a small mining town in the Democratic Republic of Congo—and not imagine that there is something fundamentally rotten at the heart of men, or whatever it is in them that makes them such easy slaves to their own everlasting pride, and makes women the price that's inevitably paid in defense of it.
Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined is a piercing cry of storytelling, narrowing a long, bloody, and very much still active civil war into a personal study of four women whose best options in life have come to this: sexual service to the revolving cast of rebels and government soldiers who flow in and out of their establishment. At least here these women—victims of the ravages of rape and abuse that the war has unleashed as its most convenient weapon—are protected, somewhat, and safe, somewhat, from the dangers that lie outside its doors, if not from the wounds they carry with them inside their own bodies. They express it in different ways—some brazen, some manipulating, some cowering—but sexual violence is a scar that runs bone deep and marks them all.
The actresses are heartbreaking: Quincy Tyler Bernstine as Salima, a wife and mother who's lost both husband and child; Cherise Boothe as Josephine, the haughty daughter of a local village chief; Condola Rashad as the "ruined" Sophie, so labeled because she's been raped with a bayonet; and the wily, commanding Portia as their savior and solicitor, Mama Nadi, who knows all too well the cost of what she's selling. Most of the actors perform double duty in the roles of both rebels and solders, which is doubly effective since they are essentially all the same men—the uniforms may change, but what they want and what they take is always the same. The two who stand apart are Christian (Russell G. Jones), a sweet-natured supplier nursing an unrequited crush on Mama Nadi, and the genial, if opportunistic, Mr. Harari (Tom Mardirosian) who unwittingly releases her most precious lifeline when he agrees to perform a simple favor.
The overall effect is sincere and sad and deeply touching, yet not without moments of lightness; it's hardly a dirge or morality lesson. These characters inhabit a vicious world, and luck is not their ally, but there's laughter, as well, hard and true, and the conclusion is both unexpectedly hopeful and honestly earned. What you see may haunt you—it's lively, vital, visceral theater that sent me shaking back into the world—but in the end what it asks is this: what choice do we have but to trust each other again? How else can we possibly survive?