Theatre Review: “Ruined” @ Berkeley Rep, 03/02/11

It’s rare that I leave a theatre speechless — very rare. Not only was I speechless, but I was emotionally spent by the end of the evening. Ruined, a Pulitzer Prize winning play by Lynn Nottage, is an emotional tour-de-force that never lets up. It’s actually hard to breathe throughout most of the second act.

Ruined focuses in on Mama Nadi (played by the incredible Tonye Patano, of Weeds’ fame), the owner of a bar and brothel, in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Playwright Lynn Nottage writes, “In Ruined, Mama Nadi gives three young woman refuge and an unsavory means of survival. As such, the women do a fragile dance between hope and disillusionment in an attempt to navigate life on the edge of an unforgiving conflict. My play is not about victims, but survivors.” Having emotional empathy for these women is almost unthinkable, because in our corner of the world, it is almost unimaginable and hard for us to understand what these women are going through. It’s not in our daily vocabulary, so we pretend it is not happening.

Liesl Tommy, the director, gives us some insight into the production, “I believe our great cause as human beings in this century is to continue to find compassion — and to understand that people everywhere are interconnected. We must, because we are them. And they are us…. Through her play, we reconnect with our humanity and with those people in that faraway war.” It’s 100% true. The audience instantly connected to the three young women — Salima (Pascale Armand), Sophie (Carla Duren) and Josephine (Zainab Jah).  But, I left heartbroken because I wasn’t sure how to help them.

Oberon K.A. Adjepong (left) and Tonye Patano star in Ruined

Tonye Patano’s beautiful portrayal of Mama Nadi is absolutely inspirational. The emotional range of the character was beyond anything I’ve seen on stage before. Mama Nadi’s stalwart facade kept her alive in some of the worst and most chilling scenes I’ve ever seen. It’s unreal that Patano has to go through this emotional journey, night after night. Her raw emotions were extraordinary.

The sound design and original music, composed by Broken Chord, was an added bonus to the already emotionally charged script. Sophie’s songs were tragically beautiful and the music was perfectly integrated into the script. The set, designed by Clint Ramos, was also beautiful. Instantly, we were taken into the very depths of the Congo jungle.

Over 5.4 million people have been killed in the Second Congo War (mostly from starvation and disease). Today, the conflict continues in Eastern Congo, driven by the trade of conflict minerals, most notably Coltan (a commodity that’s essential to producing digital technology like mobile phones, laptops and digital cameras). Living in Silicon Valley, we should understand the global impact of our products and where the material is coming from. Ruined gives us that insight and it’s a very sobering fact to digest.

Lynn Nottage has done an incredible job adapting this story for the stage. During the second act, each character (including the rebel soldier) gives their side of the story with incredible depth, encompassed with impassioned pleas that rip your heart open. I literally sat their incredulously with my mouth open while their stories were being told. (There were even several audible gasps throughout the audience.) I just couldn’t believe their stories; it was all too much.

But it is real. This is happening.

And you should do everything in your power to see Ruined so that Salima’s and the rest of the women’s stories won’t be forgotten. Their stories need to be heard; they need to be told, even if it’s extremely hard to listen.

Here are some audience’s responses on Twitter:

R2ThaEdgy: …do what you have to do to see Ruined at @berkeleyrep it’s NOTHING short of amazing.

Nicju: Still blown away by the acting in Ruined.

MizzJae_Ann: Loving the set for Ruined at Berkeley Rep!

ElliNSweeneyDRuined at the Berkeley Rep Theatre was awesome! Stirring but fun play, I highly recommend!

LilaNelson: “Ruined” by Lynn Nottage at Berkeley Rep. See it.

lperk: I second that @berkeleyrep!!! RT @lilanelson: “Ruined” by Lynn Nottage at Berkeley Rep. See it.

minklepsis: I wholeheartedly second what @jalbor says about ‘Ruined’ – very salient story with amazing acting. Definitely worth seeing Berkeley peeps.

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