For all its wrecked landscape and wrecked people, ‘Ruined’ is rich – overflowing with heartfelt emotion and dance and people still managing to sell each other out. Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama from 2009 may be Echo Theatre’s most moving stage production. It’s certainly one of the strongest shows I have seen at the Bath House Cultural Center.
Echo is the small Dallas company dedicated to staging works solely by female playwrights, and by rights, ‘Ruined’ ought to be as good as it is because it’s also Echo’s costliest show by far: It’s a co-production that wouldn’t exist without partial financing from singer-actress Denise Lee.
For years, Lee has wanted to play the lead role, a wounded and unsentimental Congolese madame, a tough survivor in a world endlessly and pointlessly at war. Lee knows a fine showcase for her talents when she sees one. Mama Nadi is an African version of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage’ – but a Mother Courage who can handle a tune. She runs a brothel-bar-nightclub in a backwoods mining area of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mama sings, serves watered-down whiskey and hungry young women to the bands of rebel militias, government forces and thirsty miners who come in the door.
Brecht complained that audiences didn’t seem to catch on that in her struggles, Mother Courage was complicit in the carnage and profit-making around her. Despite his best efforts to make us see her perpetuating the injustices, we mostly feel sympathy for her struggles to survive.
It shows how an artist can misread the impact and meaning of his own work. Mother Courage is an example of something Brecht himself said much later in life. To paraphrase: I don’t know how to defeat the Hitlers of this world. All I can do is outlive the bastards.
So he fled and wrote his plays.
Which is one kind of victory but it’s also one that exacts an emotional toll. In ‘Ruined,’ Mama’s policy is cynically pragmatic and self-serving: She attends to all sides equally and everyone pays cash – after unloading their weapons at the door. In the midst of the ongoing destruction, her bar is a little respite, a little Switzerland of neutrality and free-market profit. There are even momentary pleasures. In this way, Mama also resembles Humphrey Bogart’s emotionally closed-off casino owner in ‘Casablanca’: “I stick my neck out for no one.’
‘Ruined’ opens with a visit from Christian (Tyrees Allen), Mama’s longtime supplier, a favorite traveling salesman. In addition to his usual provisions of liquor and lipstick, Christian sells Mama two victims of the war: Salima (Kristen Bond) and Sophie (Whitney LaTrice Coulter). They are young villagers who have been gang-raped, which ensures their families will never take them back. Sophie, in particular, has been ‘ruined,’ so badly torn, she’s no longer even good for sex.
Mama exploits the young women, but she also provides them food, clothing and a modicum of safety. For her part, Sophie seems a pitiful ‘freebie’ that Christian pushes on Mama because Sophie is his niece. But Sophie soon proves she can sing and she’s smart with money.
Nottage created ‘Ruined’ from interviews with real Congolese women she met, and the near-carnivorous world the play depicts is wretchedly familiar from the grim news footage of the latest Syrian massacres. Here, Mama declares, if it can’t be weighed and tagged with a price, it’s worthless. Everyone’s trapped in the same prison of violence and money – but can find some relief and forgetfulness in whiskey and music and dance.
Nottage can be accused – and has been – of depicting Africa in the worst ways the West typically views it: as a hell hole, both exploited and colorful, weak yet brutal. But even here, there are dreams and flickers of humanity and joy and hope. And these die hard. A French trader (Isaiah Cazares) entices one young woman (Kyndal Robertson) with the idea he’ll take her to the big city. Even the salesman Christian, in his lively yet timid way, seems to be wooing the steely-hearted Mama with promises of escape.
A steely-hearted cynic like myself can spot a sentimental ending coming, and ‘Ruined’ delivers. But it’s an ending that feels earned. Lee and Allen, the old pros here, have rarely been so affecting. Both their characters find that their remaining sparks of humanity may save them or doom them, and the two actors deliver a battered emotional openness more rare, more precious than anything Mama has hidden away for insurance.
It also must be said one of the show’s achievements (and real pleasures) is seeing fourteen, local, African-American actors together in an ensemble. And that number doesn’t even include the three musicians onstage. Pam Meyers-Morgan has directed ‘Ruined’ with a sure hand. Beyond the lead pair, there’s Brandon White whose military commander is convincingly inhuman: He’s just a despotic proclamation that’ll murder without blinking. As one of the soldier-rebels, Eric Jenkins more than stands out as both brooding and volatile, a one-man brawl waiting to happen. Whitney Latrice Coulter exudes a sad-eyed intelligence as Sophie that’s all the more painful for being so crushed at the start. Kyndal Robertson, meanwhile, plays a chieftain’s abandoned daughter with a wounded arrogance that’s so clearly a defensive front, it makes her seem even more deluded.
The cast is a real, unspoken hope amidst this play’s hopelessness: Outside of the black theater companies in North Texas like Jubilee, Bishop Arts and African-American Rep, there hasn’t been this many African-American actors on a single stage since the Dallas Theater Center’s ‘Staggerlee’ – and half that cast was conveniently imported from New York. Echo’s achievement here is more encouraging for the local theater community than another crop of young, rip-snorting (generally white) stage companies, promising to revolutionize everything in sight.
It means some of these actors may actually stick around, and that means we might actually see other black playwrights getting staged hereabouts (Suzan-Lori Parks, Anna Deveare Smith, OyamO, Ron Milner). It also means that North Texas’ mainstream companies, like the Theater Center, can establish non-traditional casting as a regular policy – not a rarity. Telling us ‘There aren’t any of the right, talented black actors here’ no longer works as an excuse.
Actually, it hasn’t for some time.
True, some of this crew are clearly fresh-faced, well-off Westerners, too eager to be the kind of dead-eyed killers and beaten-down victims one sees too often in media coverage. Which brings up a minor annoyance about Morgan’s production as a whole: Everything looks too bright, too new. “Ruined” is set in a ratty bar full of terrified people in a butchered rainforest. Yet no one wears sweat-stained clothes or mud-caked boots (the costumes are by Bruce Coleman). Mama’s bar may seem to be held together by slats and tin, but nothing’s rusty, nothing is truly shabby (the set is by Clare Floyd DeVries).
I bring up this small objection because ‘Ruined’ is such a tremendously moving production, it deserves to be convincing down to the last dirty shot glass. Fresh paint and stylish props seems to be the default design failing in North Texas theaters and has been for as long as I’ve been sitting in their seats. It seems we instinctively skirt depicting real poverty or despair. It’s not much of a failing here – although it’s a very Dallas one – and it’s true Nottage depicts people who still can savor such riches as beautiful fabrics and Belgian chocolates, people who, as a matter of course, make vivid music the way most of us breathe. I’ll take a talented music trio onstage (Neeki Bey, Christopher Green and the estimable S-Ankh S. Rasa on drums) over some dusty floors or properly distressed costumes.
But still, at times, the production design nags. The show looks like a retro Tiki lounge on a slow Friday. It can suggest “festive exotica” – when it needs to feel as heartbreakingly ruined as Nottage’s characters.