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Edna Manley Uncovers Emotional Treasure in Lyn Nottage’s Ruined

Mama Nadi and Sophie in Lyn Nottage's Ruined

Women are rarely combatants in war yet their bodies are often sites upon which battles are waged. Ruined, currently being staged under the direction of Eugene Williams at the Dennis Scott Studio Theatre, Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, Kingston, delves deep into this issue in a dark and moving exploration of women ravaged by war.

Written by American playwright Lyn Nottage, Ruined earned the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Ruined is the story of four women, Mama Nadi, Sophie, Josephine and Salima in the Democratic Republic of Congo during their four year civil war.  They hail from very different backgrounds and have different personalities, but they share a history of trauma, of being viciously raped and brutalized and then spurned by their fathers, husbands and villages as ruined and therefore no longer of value.

Ruined therefore explores sex as a weapon of domination. Like the land, diamonds or coltan that the rebel leaders, miners and military battle over, women are another resource to be taken, used and cast aside.

The play takes place in a ramshackle brothel in the middle of the jungle where these women have taken refuge. Their lives are not easy but here they have found some control over their bodies if nothing else. At the centre of the story is the intriguing Mama Nadi (Risanne Martin) a  bold, crafty and calculating business woman determined to make her way in the world dominated by men. Mama has realized that by gaining control over her sexuality and that of the girls in her establishment, she can wrestle power from men.

Nottage makes the bold step of suggesting that in such a context prostitution is empowering as it provides the women with choice about who touches their bodies and at what cost. However, the play clearly advocates that the ideal situation will come from a space where women can be respected as more than property and a place to prove manhood.

Ruined has an engaging plot and most importantly the characters are well-developed and easily pull you into the story. The language is harsh bringing the gruesome reality into sharp focus. The cast, largely a blend of current students and graduates (with a guest appearance by Bob Kerr) does a commendable job. Graduate performers Risanne Martin (Mama Nadi) and Carl Samuels (Commander Osembenga) are particularly striking, delivering textured engaging performances. These two were also the most consistent at maintaining the accent, a blend of Central Africa and France, which heightened the authenticity of their portrayals.

Ron Steger creates a beautiful, multi-layered set that is more than a backdrop against which the story plays out. The play’s atmosphere and emotional depth are also enhanced by sound effects and the score performed by musicians M’bala and David Sanderson.

Under Williams’ capable direction Ruined remains haunting. However, there are a few elements of the character relationships which could be heightened, especially for us to understand Mama Nadi and her attitude to Sophie. Similarly, greater chemistry between Mama Nadi and Christian (Paul Wilson) would have further strengthened the emotional intensity.

Those who believe that the recent outcry about the song ‘A Ya So Nice’ and the lamentable line “before mi tun a batty-man mi rather be a raper” was nothing more than much ado about bubbling chicken gravy may want to take a look at this production which closes Sunday April 22, 2012. The outcry surrounds the fact that the contested line from the song rests in the same vicinity as that explored by Ruined, where a woman’s body is used to prove masculinity and power. It is in the same context that Shabba Ranks receives feminist credit for ‘Who Say that Woman Cyan Done?”.

So, it is hard to escape the resonances of our own stories in Jamaica with Ruined, especially in the face of statistics on the high probability of abuse for Caribbean women, which interestingly, is also explored in Basil Dawkins’ Where is My Father (currently playing at the Little Little Theatre). In Ruined, the School of Drama has uncovered an emotional treasure that is well worth a trip to the theatre.