Wednesday, July 22, 2009

NYC: Ruined

In 1911, newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer died leaving a bequest in his will to establish a prize through the School of Journalism at Columbia University for exemplary publication in American Arts and Letters. The original statement of the award for drama read: "Annually, for the original American play, performed in New York, which shall best represent the educational value and power of the stage in raising the standard of good morals, good taste and good manners..." In 1928, the statute was amended to "For the original American play, performed in New York, which shall best represent the educational value and power of the stage." And in 1934, an amendment was made for the award to go to "preferably one dealing with American life." Obviously, the Pulitzer Prizes have evolved in the near century of existence; however, the mandate of the award remains the same. This year, the Pulitzer Board awarded Lynne Nottage's Ruined "for a searing drama, set in the Congo that compels audiences to face the horror of wartime rape and brutality while still finding affirmation of life and hope amid hopelessness." A colleague of mine recently commented that the Pulitzer Prize has evolved from a play that represents the American experience to that which represents Africa. Although, I understand his nearsighted opinion, I am most impressed that the Pulitzer committee decided to award the prize to playwright Lynne Nottage's Ruined for a number of reasons.

I saw the production of Ruined now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club Stage 1 and I was completely blown away by the simple, yet powerful depiction of a brothel in war-torn Congo. The story revolves around Mama Nadi, the madame, who attempts to provide a refuge of sorts for girls who are displaced from their homes in order to find solace in the steady work and security of living in a house of ill-repute. The actress known as Portia portrays Mama Nadi, a perfect madame conflicted by her need to provide for the girls she has while confronted with two new emigres, one of which is "ruined." "Ruined," in case you haven't deciphered, is the term given to women who have been raped to the point of genital mutilation - a far cry from Thomas Hardy's Ruined Maid, but a similar sentiment. When the trader Christian (commandingly portrayed by Russell G. Jones) arrives with two new girls, he persuades Mama Nadi to accept them with an offering of Belgian chocolates. Her acceptance of two lives in exchange for chocolates reflects a Brechtian Mother Courage that is pervasive throughout the script. The plot thickens when it is revealed that the one girl who is ruined, Sophie, is also Christian's niece. Sophie, however, proves a useful commodity as she has enough education to keep the books and is blessed with a singing voice to stave off the men. Although, this production is not a musical, the original music provided by Dominic Kanza is award-worthy in itself (and far more worthy of accolade than the Disneyfied Broadway hit In the Heights also shamefully nominated for a Pulitzer). Condola Rashad as the ruined Sophie delivers a star-making performance both in acting and singing prowess. Her friend, Salima, is not ruined and, therefore, is immediately exposed to "the life." Quincy Tyler Bernstein portrays the perfectly nubile Salima who gives her body begrudgingly while holding onto her dream of her estranged husband, Fortune.

Throughout the play, Mama Nadi's house serves as a rotating door for soldiers and opportunistic men. Meanwhile, the encroaching war brings Mama Nadi's to the center of the conflict when a begrudged soldier informs the commander that Mama Nadi has hosted the rebel leaders. In one of the most dramatic climaxes of any play I have seen, the girls of Mama Nadi's are thrust to the ground by soldiers and... well, you can only imagine the brutality and drama that ensues.

I often cry at the theatre and Ruined proved to be a tear-fest. However, my tears were shed with shocking revelations about each of the characters as they tell their stories that led them to Mama Nadi's. The dramas of this drama are delivered through gut wrenching sucker punches that fly at you from every unexpected angle. Sophie's determination to sing through her fear as she watches her friend give her body to a man for the first time. Salima's revelation of her pregnancy and the horrifying tale of her first-born child. Indeed, Madame Nadi's own shocking revelation at the end of the play. Each of these moments is delivered with emotional impact and truth that startle, stun, and ultimately force us to question (and bless) our privileged lives and existence in the United States.

Two years ago, the Pulitzer committee gave the award to David Lindsay Abaire's Rabbit Hole, an equally emotional drama, but one set in the comforts of suburban America. After seeing Mr. Abaire's show, I remember crying out of empathy for this family who lost their young child in a hit and run accident. However, afterward, I felt that my emotions had been compromised and derided the Pulitzer committee for selecting a show that completely evades the questions of American privilege during a time when our own country is at war. Although, I do think that Mr. Abaire's piece is a worthy play, I am pleased to see that the Pulitzer committee has opened their eyes and expanded their selection criteria to embrace the injustices in the world that deserve to be explored through the medium of theatre.

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