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In 'Ruined,' Women Bear Grim Witness To War

MacArthur Award-winner Lynn Nottage set her best-known play, Intimate Apparel, in 1905. But her latest work is ripped from today's headlines.

Ruined, which opens at the off-Broadway Manhattan Theatre Club on Feb. 10, takes an unflinching look at the stories of women who've suffered appalling violations in the ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They've been raped; they've been mutilated. But they've survived.

The playwright says she wanted to bring events that can often seem far away right into the laps of a contemporary audience.

"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,'" says Nottage. "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."

Ruined is set in a bar and brothel in a mining town in the Congo rainforest. The customers are miners and 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" — their humanity degraded through rape.

"What we're finding that's peculiar to this conflict is that women are being raped in large numbers," says Nottage. "Not only are they being raped, but they're being brutalized. Rape has become a weapon of war."

Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey began working on Ruined several years ago, when they decided to do a contemporary adaptation of Mother Courage, the classic indictment of war and war profiteering by German playwright Bertolt Brecht.

They flew to Uganda, across the border from Congo, to interview refugee women about their war experiences. The experience left a vivid impression on Whoriskey.

"They were all beautifully dressed, these 15 women, so colorful and beautiful," she remembers. "And then we heard these stories. And the stories were devastating, and to hear them back to back. ... I didn't actually recognize that rape had such physical consequences. I always thought of the psychological, but not the physical consequences. It was hard to hear, over and over, how ruined these women's bodies were."

In this war, women's bodies are a battleground. So Nottage decided to make one character, a war profiteer, the owner of a brothel.

"I was very interested in the different levels of exploitation," says Nottage. "We begin with financial exploitation, and then I wanted to move to sexual exploitation. I think the brothel became that perfect venue with which to explore these issues."

And the brothel owner — Mama Nadi.

"She's sexy, she's smart, she's witty, she's sassy, she's a survivor," says actress Saidah Arrika Ekulona, who plays the part. "She's nurturing, and then she can also be very off-putting."

And Mama has her rules, all of which look out for No. 1.

"If things are good, everyone gets a little. If things are bad, then Mama eats first," explains Ekulona.

One critical rule is that Mama Nadi's establishment will serve anyone, as long as they check their gun at the door.

"When you come into Mama Nadi's place, essentially, you're laying aside the war," Nottage says. "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."

Much of Ruined's story is harrowing. But director Whoriskey says it's also about the human capacity to adapt.

"Each story has a lot of trauma inside of it, but it also has a lot of hope, love, humor, hypocrisy and betrayal and all of these other elements," she says. "So we're really hoping for it to be a complex experience."

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Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.