We each experience the Fires of Life. But what does it mean to be human in the most horrifying of circumstances? What happens to our human spirit? In Ruined, Lynne Nottage the playwright explores these questions in a story set amidst the ongoing atrocities and war in the Congo. Winner of the 2009 Pulitzer, the play was directed in Chicago and New York by Kate Whoriskey. Ruined is currently at the Intiman in Seattle and moving on to Los Angeles and Johannesburg. Robert and Kate share a conversation.
RVT: How did two American women who’d never visited the Congo before have an idea emerge to write a play set in the war torn region of the Congo?
KW: In 2004, Lynn Nottage and I were working on our second collaboration, Fabulation. On a break, we got into a conversation about Brecht. We found that both of us admired Mother Courage, and the cruel paradox at the heart of the play—that Mother Courage profited from a war that took her children. Lynn wanted to do a new version of the play that would be set in Congo. The war over natural resources had been raging there for years at that point, with very little mainstream media attention. Lynn used to work for Amnesty International, and she was very disturbed that the media was not paying attention to the fact that violence was being targeted against women and girls, perpetuated through the use of rape as a weapon. She thought that doing this adaptation might call attention to the crisis.
Months passed without our talking about this, then one day Lynn called me and asked me if I wanted to go to the bordering country of Uganda with her; she had already bought her own ticket, so I had to decide quickly. I went with her almost on a whim, and we interviewed Congolese women who had crossed over the border to escape the violence. After we did these interviews, it became clear that we did not want to be beholden to Brecht’s ideas. Lynn was interested in portraying the lives of Central Africans as accurately as she could, and she wanted to tell a story that would be true to our experiences in Uganda, and the stories of the women we interviewed and the people we met. A year later, Lynn returned to Africa and interviewed refugees fleeing armed conflicts in Congo, Uganda, Sudan and Somalia, and we began developing the play that eventually became Ruined.
RVT: Mama Nadi, the main character in Ruined, runs a bar and brothel which is used to protect the young women in her care from soldiers whose comrades have raped and mutilated them. What unexpected learning’s did the stories of the women of the Congo teach you about the human spirit?
KW: What struck both of us from our trip was that while there was incredible chaos in the region, this was also home. The people of the Congo, especially the women, were determined to survive and build lives there. When the media focuses attention on areas like the Congo, they often describe the violence, the poverty and the AIDS crisis. We learned that it is important to hear the full story, the positive alongside the negative. What was so great about our trip is that we witnessed great beauty, strength and artistry, and that is what we tried to celebrate in Lynn’s writing and in the production.
RVT: Ruined is serious theater! It invites the audience into the reality of rape, sexual slavery and violence in the battle over prized natural resources in the Congo. Any yet the play is also about a larger human story. How do audiences respond to you about their experiences?
KW: I think I speak for everyone who has been involved with Ruined—from the acting ensemble to the designers to the producers—that it has truly been a privilege to work on the play. What has been so incredible for us all is that audiences seem to respond with the same sense of privilege—they feel lucky to get to spend two hours in this world. Here in Seattle, at the Intiman, we even extended before we opened, which is fantastic.
What I love most about watching Ruined with an audience is that you can see the response that people have to the play, and also to the real world that the play is about. Audiences come away from it wanting to do something to make a difference. At Intiman, at the end of every performance the actors in the company collect donations for the Panzi Hospital of Bukavu, which provides treatment and services for women who are survivors of sexual violence in the Congo—including those needing surgical repair resulting from rape or childbirth trauma—and children conceived as the result of rape. We also did this in New York, but the response here has been tremendous. Watching people stand up and applaud the actors to say “thank you” for their passion and commitment, and then give money to help women in the Congo, really affirms for me the power of theatre to inspire change.
The play has also reached policy makers, which is very exciting to me; it has attracted the attention of the United Nations, the U.S. Senate and the British Parliament. We know that the play will not end a war, but people are paying attention to the conflict because of the play, and doing something about it.
RVT: The play has a romantic and “happy” ending. What does that say about who we are as people even in the midst of violence and abuse?
The ending is romantic, but I would say that it is less “happy” than it is hopeful. Lynn has the gift and the genius for looking inside moments that are about chaos and disruption and psychic damage, absorbing all of that, and then writing a narrative that shows us we are capable of so much more.
RVT: The original New York cast is performing Ruined in Seattle and Los Angeles this summer and then on to the famous Market Theater in Johannesburg, South Africa. Why there and why now?
KW: The run in Los Angeles is part of a co-production with the Geffen Theatre. Then in October, Intiman is bringing Ruined to the Market Theatre to launch our new International Cycle. People have asked us we are not bringing the play to the Congo, but there is no theatre company in the DRC and we must never forget that Ruined is a play, and that it has the greatest impact because it combines truth and research with art and imagination. But more importantly, we chose the Market because of its unique history as the “Theatre of the Struggle” under apartheid, when it produced important political theatre and opened its doors to all the people of South Africa. That is a legacy that should be honored.
As we are planning this trip, we are reaching out to organizations in and around Johannesburg not only so we can attract audiences, but because we want to work with human rights and women’s rights groups. Our ambition is to collaborate with these groups and develop opportunities for conversations, programs and video testimonials around the play. There is a sizable population of Congolese refugees in South Africa and we want to reach out to them. More than that, presenting Ruined in South Africa creates a unique opportunity for this play to speak to audiences that have (through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) already deeply explored what it means to have a national crisis of conscience and overcome trauma, in a country that must continue right now to confront its own deeply rooted culture of violence against women.
Share your stories of the human spirit under difficult circumstances here