Mama Nadi is one tough cookie. She runs a bar and brothel in a remote rainforest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As that African nation is being torn apart by civil war, Mama's gin joint is a veritable no-man's land, hospitable to government soldiers and rebels alike. The rule of law may have broken down in the Congo, but not here. If Mama tells you to "shut your mouth," you'd better shut it — and fast.
As the riveting centerpiece of Ruined, a searing drama that's receiving a stunningly effective production at the Black Rep, Mama is a bravura creation. Playwright Lynn Nottage modeled her after Bertolt Brecht's indomitable Mother Courage. But somewhere during the writing process, Mama announced that she wasn't about to stand in anyone's shadow. She emerged full-blown, waiting (impatiently, no doubt) for a commanding actress like Andrea Frye to give her robust life. Frye is towering. Yet the glory of Ruined is not that Mama is so flamboyantly drawn, but rather that she's only one of eight vibrant characters, each of whom is rendered as if he or she is the most important person in the script.
Much of the action centers on Salima (Sharisa Whatley) and Sophie (Evann Jones), two teenagers brought to Mama Nadi's by a flesh peddler who is — not unintentionally — named Christian. How satisfying to see the brash J. Samuel Davis back with the Black Rep (though it's time for Davis to update his playbill bio.)The hardboiled Mama only wants one new addition to her stable, not two. "I open my doors, and tomorrow I'm refugee camp overrun with suffering," she crabs. But somewhere in the recesses of her austere soul, Mama has a center as soft as the Belgian chocolates that are used to win her over. Both teens take refuge in a whorehouse — which, compared to life in their villages, is an oasis of calm. But Salima is already ruined, a contemptuous term to describe women who have been so damaged by rape that they no longer can produce children. She must find more creative ways to make herself useful.
Ruined exposes us to a capricious world where a pair of sunglasses worn by the wrong man can be more menacing than a semiautomatic weapon. The makeshift scenic design by Regina Garcia and the evocative African garb designed by Daryl Harris provide the action with a specific locale. Within that fragile universe, director Ron Himes keeps the play moving at an edge-of-your-seat pace. All the actors — including Patrese McClain as another hooker, Erik Kilpatrick as the erratic Commander Osembenga and Joe Hanrahan as a dissolute diamond merchant — understand that their characters exist in a tinderbox where anything can happen to anyone, because life here is so expendable.
"We have to pretend that all this ugliness means nothing," Christian pleads. Yet ugliness is relative. Ruined was written after Nottage conducted extensive interviews with Congolese refugees in 2004 and 2005. Although their stories of sexual violation and torture are the reason for this play, the script is mostly free of didacticism. These characters don't preach; they're too busy trying to survive — if not with honor, then at least without further degradation.
But can we not assume that during her time in East Africa Nottage heard about even more graphic horrors than she relates here? The artfulness of this 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama lies in its ability to soften harsh facts in the pursuit of an even more compelling truth. The ultimate triumph of Ruined is that a disturbing play haunted by death and despair also throbs with theatrical life. This is not theater you should feel obligated to see because the story it tells is "important"; this is theater you don't want to miss because the experience is enthralling.