Mother courage

STAGE As outrage mounts at the vicious repression of civilians in Libya, Lynn Nottage’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined reminds us of the ongoing crimes against humanity — in particular the strategic use of sexual violence against women — carried out routinely for years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The devastating civil war that began there in 1998 continues today as one of the most destructive on the planet, having taken well more than 5 million lives.

Despite its title, Ruined is as much a tribute to the persistence of life amid the most unspeakable atrocities. The play gets a strong, well-acted Bay Area premiere in a coproduction between the Berkeley Rep, Huntington Theatre Company, and La Jolla Playhouse. Directed with sharp timing and a keen eye by Liesl Tommy, it uses a small circle of characters to draw attention to the horrendous ordeal, as well as the enduring fortitude and resilience, of hundreds of thousands of Congolese women whose bodies, as one character puts it, have been used as battlegrounds in a ruthless and terrifying conflict.

Mama Nadi (an expansive and canny Tonye Patano) runs a modest little bar and brothel in a mining town somewhere in the lush and lawless countryside of eastern Congo. Her clientele are exclusively men: a dangerous mixture of miners, soldiers, rebel militiamen, and shady merchants. Not unlike the title character in Brecht’s Mother Courage (which was indeed the inspiration for Nottage’s protagonist and a starting point for her play as a whole), Mama does her best to keep the conflict outside in the name of doing business, insisting that her customers unload their weapons before entering and smoothly managing any potential unrest with a swift flow of alcohol or some proffered female companionship.

But in truth, the best Mama can hope for is an uneasy negotiation with the usually heavily-intoxicated and power-drunk marauders who inevitably bring the evils of war with them as they come looking for respite. And Mama is not all business either. She’s reluctantly kind-hearted, a trait that creates (or recapitulates) conflict where she would prefer there was none.

Four years sober but soon pushed off the wagon, Mama’s friend Christian (a compelling Oberon K.A. Adjepong) brings over two young war refugees as new labor for her business. She finally accepts both, even though the shy, limping Sophie (a moving Carla Duren) is “ruined” by the sexual assaults she’s suffered, and thus of limited use to the proprietress. The other woman, Salima (Pascale Armand), is a former wife and mother cast off by her husband and community in the wake of her abduction and rape by a group of soldiers. (Her soldier husband, played by Wendell B. Franklin, eventually comes looking for her, having reconsidered, but he doesn’t realize she’s pregnant.)

The Brooklyn-born Nottage — whose earlier play Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine is also running in the Bay Area this month in a production by the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre — traveled to Africa to hear firsthand from Congolese women who had suffered the various forms of violence, exploitation, and exclusion depicted here. There is a strong sense of authenticity in the stories that Ruined elaborates, despite the conventions of the dramatic form she has chosen. It’s an emotive and sturdily constructed drama, if also a traditional and familiar-feeling one.

The tension arises less from the storyline — which is dispersed across several overlapping plot points — than the palpable threat of violence and fearful gloom permeating the stage, an open-air barroom enshrouded by vaunting jungle in scenic designer Clint Ramos’ impressive rendering.

It’s a venomous atmosphere dispelled strategically, here and there, in merciful moments of humor, tentative affection, and bursts of lovely, joyful song delivered by Sophie (backed by an understated but terrific pair of musicians acting as Mama’s house band: Adesoji Odukogbe and Alvin Terry). This dynamic — the contrast between the memory and promise of happiness contained in the music, and the toxic physical and mental forces bearing down on the characters — might be Ruined‘s most tangible illustration of the perversion of life by war. 


Through April 10

Berkeley Rep, Roda Theatre

2025 Addison, Berk.

(510) 647-2949