Tension fills the smoky, heavy air as you watch the human drama unfold in the Huntington Theatre’s expertly delicate production of Ruined. Such a contrast to the icy winter streets outside in Boston, the tropical jungle setting and Afrobeat music immediately transport you to the environs of war-torn Congo. The casual bar setup and the cafe tables you see as you enter the theater belie the political subtext brimming underneath.
That evocatively detailed set by Clint Ramos acts as the neutral buffer zone by Mama Nadi and her girls during a human war being raged by militaristic factions in Congo. You see, Mama Nadi is the sassy headmatron who runs the brothel and supplies the booze for the soldiers who march in looking for a good time. To keep the customer traffic moving and satisfied, she takes in girls escaping the exterior world and provides them housing, grooms them for the clients, then takes a fraction of their pay to keep the enterprise afloat.
As played with tough and well-meaning authority, Tonye Patano (the sassy drug mistress Heylia James on “Weeds”) delivers a commanding performance showing who’s in control on her turf. The outside war is foreign to the rambunctious vibe happening inside the bar. However, once you step inside Mama Nadi’s house, you abide by her rules. This is proven when she effectively rationalizes with some soldiers to surrender their weapons before entering her establishment. The United Nations would be proud to have her as the peace ambassador.
The integral female ensemble contributed to the searing and disturbing story elements of rape and violence as the desired weapons of choice in this war. All passionately portrayed by Pascale Armand (Salima), Carla Duren (Sophie) and Zainab Jah (Josephine), each one of them showcases the strengths and unique personalities the characters require of them. But they also support one another in unbreakable unity.
Leading the male ensemble, Oberon K.A. Adjepong as Christian is the glue holding the peace efforts together. Adjepong has the sincerity and gentlemanly charm to make his character the persistent salesman to woo Mama Nadi. During rare occasions amidst all the hostility, you see a glimmer of hope shining in a soft moment between Christian and Mama Nadi as they share a rare intimate dance together.
Lynn Nottage researched her themes for the play by visiting Congo in 2004 and wanted to show audiences the horror and fear that Congolese women go through as part of their everyday reality. By giving them a much-needed public voice, the ongoing war can then be acknowledged and provoke public awareness. Nottage’s effort were richly recognized by having her honored with the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. A well-deserved accolade, indeed, Nottage makes a powerful statement in how human relations can be nonexistent in apartheid territories. At the same time, it can be rebuilt through simple humanistic emotions of love and joy.
Liesl Tommy directs Nottage’s carefully constructed play in measured intensity. Psychological and immediate, the production as a whole is a cathartic experience that will not make for light theatre, but thought-provoking in many ways. I suggest an urgency is required to bear witness on this brutally honest and optimistically hopeful tale.
RUINED running through February 6 @ Huntington/BU Theatre, Boston, MA, www.huntingtontheatre.org