Arts & Events

Eye from the Aisle: RUINED at BRep—Soft on Plot, Action, for Gruesome Subject

By John A. McMullen II
Tuesday March 08, 2011 - 10:14:00 PM

Lynn Nottage won the Pulitzer Prize for RUINED. I almost ended that sentence with a question mark. Hard to believe it won, since it is short on plot, action, and language. 

It opened last Wednesday at the Berkeley Rep as a multiple theatre production with La Jolla Playhouse and Huntingdon Theatre, and in association with Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. It is directed by South African native Liesl Tommy. 

The audience was full on a rainy Sunday night, and they gave it a rousing, standing ovation at the curtain. Most every critic loves it. 

Though it is a cause célèbre, so terrible as to enrage decent people, and while I have great sympathy for those sufferers of this ongoing war terror, it is the art of this drama that, to my eye, falls short. 

“Ruined” refers to genital mutilation of womenby soldiers through multiple rapes and mayhem in the never-ending civil wars in the Heart of Darkness. It takes place in the sanctuary of a whorehouse/bar. The situation and resolution has overtones of Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca: the redemption of the hardened, money-driven proprietor turning out to be a good person after all. 

The actors are AEA and the acting is moving, but they don’t have much to work with. Their horror stories remind you of “The Vagina Monologues” in their spot-lit straight-on delivery to the audience, but seem stagey within this interactive play. The accents seem accurate, but they extend the vowels so much that it slows the delivery down to tedious pace which makes the play longer andmakes the rhythms the same. The dialogue has little poetry in it to sustain us. 

The first act is tame: Christian the Supplier visits Big Mama Radi, the Madam of the Brothel, and implores and negotiates to have her take on two new girls, one of whom, Sophie, is beautiful, educated, a singing talent, but ruined. She helps Mama, and her singing—by lovely-voiced Carla Duren— provides entertaining interludes of African music. She spirits money away to pay for a restorative operation. Periodically, soldiers come in and out and threaten and abuse the women. The other girl, Salima,is married and wants to return to her family. At the end of the first act, two soldiers come to the brothel looking for her—one is her husband. Will they be reunited? Will Sophie get the operation? The applause at the end of act one was spotty and scarce. 

The second act offers more depth and heartbreak, self-mutilation and missing the boat, and the repetitiveness of first one army then another cycling through the bar leveling threats and abuse. 

It ends with a happy resolution which I found disturbing for a tragic and ongoing situation. 

In the first act, there is only a bit of wrestling to suggest the gut-wrenching spectacle of forcing an unwilling new prostitute to cooperate with the customer’s sexual advances. In the second act, the reaction of ruined Sophie to the general’s forced advances effective conveys the panic of reliving the trauma. Living in a bordello, where the assumption is that sex is available, make the situation as an ironic and bitter situation; as ironicas the sign on the floor in front of the bar: “Campagne pour l’elimination de VIH/SIDA pediatrique” (Campaign for the elimination of childhood AIDS). And not a condom in sight. 


The highlight of the play begins the second act in the dancing of Zainab Jah as Josephine. As she dances provocatively for the soldiers, they paw at her, and the prospect of the ruination of a gang-rape is palpable—which impels Josephine to dance more frenetically while eluding their grasp. It had all the archetypal overtones of the Rite of Spring (i.e., making a virgin dance till she dies of exhaustion thus expiating the sins of the village). Ms. Jah’s dancing is beyond talented and combined with the dramatic situation, it hits the desperate tone that we wish the rest of the play had mustered. 

Nottage also penned Intimate Apparel, the nation’s most produced play in 2005-06. 

The set and lighting are lush and warm, and this milieu softens the bleakness of the story and the characters’ plight. Perhaps they were too far away in the RODA? Though I sat in the orchestra, I seemed to be watching it from a distance that broke the empathy; distance in art, painting or drama or any other, is always a factor. 

The critics of the Pulitzer Prize have accused the organization of favoring those who support liberal causes or oppose conservative causes. My ATCA colleague Christopher Rawson wrote an informative and scathing article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette about the controversial Pulitzer and the politics of it, that begins, “…For this year's Pulitzer Prize in Drama, the 17-member Pulitzer board rejected the three finalists selected by its own five-member Drama jury.” (More at

RUINED by Lynn Nottage 

Playing Tue-Sun at the Berkeley Rep through April 10 

Tickets / Info: (510) 647–2949 or 

Lynn Nottage, Playwright / Liesl Tommy, Director / Randy Duncan, Choreographer /Clint Ramos, Scenic Design / Kathleen Geldard, Costume Design / Lap Chi Chu, Lighting Design / Broken Chord, Sound Design & Original Music / Shirley Fishman, Dramaturg / Steve Rankin, Fight Director / Anjee Nero *, Stage Manager / Alaine Alldaffer, Casting / Amy Potozkin, West Coast Casting / 

With: Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Christian / Pascale Armand, Salima / Jason Bowen, Fortune / Carla Duren, Sophie / Wendell B. Franklin, Jerome Kisembe / Zainab Jah, Josephine / Joseph Kamal, Mr. Harari / Adesoji Odukogbe, Musician 2 / Kola Ogundiran, Laurent / Okieriete Onaodowan, Simon / Tonye Patano, Mama Nadi / Adrian Roberts, Commander Osembenga / Alvin Terry, Musician 1 

John A. McMullen II just returned from the American Theatre Critics Conference in NYC.  

Watch for his preview of shows to see if your travels take you there in the spring.  

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