RUINED The men in Lynn Notage’s Pulitzer Prize winner can posture all they want, but Mama is not to be messed with.
Even if it did not ride piggyback on the monumental shoulders of Bertolt Brecht, Lynn Nottage's 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner, Ruined, would stand tall. Inspired by Mother Courage and set amid civil conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the play, in a vibrant Boston premiere by the Huntington Theatre Company (at the BU Theatre through February 6), is powerful stuff. True, it's more sentimental than Brecht's tough-minded ode to a tough-skinned survivor. And its agenda is more particular — in Nottage's words, "to paint a three-dimensional portrait of the women caught in the middle of armed conflicts." But the play, in its choice of empathy over alienation, puts us in intimate touch with the bruised humanity of a gender whose members are treated, in the culture they inhabit, as less than fully human.
The Courage figure of Ruined pulls a stationary wagon: a makeshift tavern and whorehouse in the rain-forest sticks where booze and babes are available to any soldier — government militia or rebel forces — who'll check his bullets at the bar. Unlike Brecht's equal-opportunity profiteer, hostess and madam Mama Nadi has no children to lose. She is a mother in name only, aided in her enterprise by a passel of young women for whom prostitution — if they have not been "ruined" for it by genital violence — is a respite from worse sexual abuse. Congo has been dubbed the "rape capital of the world," and though Nottage has not visited that capital first hand, she has come close, traveling twice to East Africa to interview female refugees of a seemingly endless war (though the Congo conflict officially ended in 2003) whose battlefields include their bodies.
Although the self-invented Mama Nadi boasts of putting food into the mouths of eight women, we meet only three. Already on the premises is Josephine, tarted up in sexy duds and a bleached wig but so tightly clenched at the insult visited on her, the daughter of a chief, that at one point she flies into a spasmodic dance of sheer rage. The other two are recruits brought by Christian, an amiable itinerant salesman sweet on Mama Nadi. Salima is a farmer's young wife who was kidnapped by rebel soldiers and held in the bush for five months, available to all and sundry as "soup" before supper. When she escaped, both husband and village turned on her as a temptress. At least Mama Nadi can make a buck off her. Sophie, docile but smart, is the ruined one, the violence perpetrated on her evident in every stiff, limping step. Reluctantly, Mama takes her on as bookkeeper and chanteuse; in the latter role she shares the bar's stage with two able musicians (electric-guitarist and Nigeria native Adesoji Odukogbe and Boston drummer Alvin Terry).
The initial negotiation accomplished, the play breaks out into visceral, menacing episodes in which one macho militia and then its doppelgänger burst into the premises, leering and boozing, dancing like acrobats, manhandling the merchandise. Also a frequent customer is white trader Mr. Harari, who tries to stay out of harm's way while making sly deals for the wealth coming up out of the mines. (Congo produces 80 percent of the world's coltan, which is used in digital technology.) The proprietress, cajoling but not to be messed with, takes all sides and none — until the appearance of Salima's husband, looking for his wife, leads to a furious chain of events in which even the implacable Mama is temporarily cowed.