FEBRUARY 2018 | Volume 164
Pictured: Tom Pickett, Mariam Barry. Photo by Jalen Saip.
Ruined is a very ambitious project for Pacific Theatre, a play for nine actors plus two musicians crammed onto Pacific’s tiny basement stage. It’s even more ambitious for Dark Glass Theatre, Angela Konrad’s small Fraser Valley company that produced it. African-American playwright Lynn Nottage’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning play itself is very challenging, dealing with mass rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
So kudos to everyone involved. Just to see so many Black performers onstage in Vancouver is extremely rare, and all these actors, affecting central African accents, do a great job. Director Konrad and her company handle the difficult, often painful material with respect and dramatic integrity, never getting melodramatic but not shying away from confronting the physical and emotional horrors of the story. My only real complaint about the production was that the pace on opening night felt unnecessarily slow.
The play is a kind of African Mother Courage, set in the midst of a civil war in a combination bar and brothel run by Mama Nadi (Mariam Barry), a pragmatic self-made capitalist concerned primarily with profits. She’ll serve anyone—miners, rebels, government soldiers—as long as they wash before entering, leave their guns at the door, and pay cash up front. She’s unsentimental about her girls who have to earn their keep.
When the show opens, Christian (Tom Pickett), a poetry-spouting salesman who regularly visits her, brings Mama two new girls. Salima (Shayna Jones), a mother of four, was kidnapped by rebels and held as a sex slave for five months. When she returned home she was shunned by her husband and fellow villagers. Young Sophie (Makambe K Simamba) had it even worse, if that seems possible, raped with a bayonet and sexually “ruined.” Mama is reluctant to take them in, traumatized as they both are, but she does.
They join Josephine (Rachel Mutombo), who seems relatively untroubled about her prostitution and resents the newbies. But eventually we hear her terrible story, too. Her father was village chief but that didn’t save her from being raped by soldiers.
Various soldiers come to Mama’s place, including the powerful and dangerous rebel leader (Michael Kiapway), the equally powerful, threatening army commander (Donald Sales), and Salima’s husband (Adrian Neblett), who has relented and wants her back. There’s also one white customer (Damon Calderwood), who seems to be involved in various nefarious projects.
The war raging outside is obviously coming closer and closer but Mama is convinced that she and her establishment are immune from the destruction and atrocities of the fighting. She’ll prove both right and wrong in an ending that changes her. I found it a surprising ending, partly in tune with the tragic events at the heart of the story but part-Hollywood, too.
I want to reiterate how good the acting is across the board, but particularly by Mutombo, Jones and Simamba as the three damaged women who represent all the innocent female victims Nottage is honouring here. Nice work, too, by onstage musicians Mikaela Fuqua and Jacky Yenga.
Carolyn Rapanos’ simple set establishes a jungle bar that, even when crowded, leaves the actors room to play. Megan Gilron’s costumes look authentic, and Corina Akeson and Jeff Tymoschuk’s sound effectively evokes the threatening outside reality. Good lighting by Jillian White.
Ruined is an important story well-told by this brave company and well worth seeing.
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