A few years ago I read that in this world that there are over 200 civil wars going on at any one time. We don’t hear about most of them because it would be sensory overload. But when things reach a certain level then the press or the government makes Americans aware of what’s going on. In the little traveling I have done outside the states I have sometimes wondered what keeps certain countries from total collapse.
Seeing Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined takes in a place that has collapsed. Set in the war torn Demoratic Republic of Congo (formerly know as Zaire and the Belgian Congo). It’s a country that had over 5 million people die in the Second Congo war between 1998-2003. It was also a war where accounts of rape and other brutal acts of violence were widespread. (Nottage has pointed out that though the war is over violence on women continues in that region.)
If you’ve seen the movie Hotel Rwanda which took place is the neighboring country of Rwanda in 1996, and later spilled over into Zaire, you begin to have an understanding of the situation. Another slightly older reference is when the area was known as the Congo Free State it was the setting for Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness which was published over 100 years ago (and for which in turn was the beginning point for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.)
Somewhere in hearing the modern day suffering of women in the Demoratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Nottage decided there was something worth exploring. According to an article by Patrick Pacheco in the L.A. Times Nottage spent two months “at a Uganda refugee camp interviewing women who had been raped and brutalized in the fierce Civil War that has wracked the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo for decades.”
He quotes Nottage about her desire to write a play on what she had seen and heard, “I thought to myself, ‘This play will be the ruin of me.’ I knew I wanted to tell a story that was not agitprop, that was universal, epic and unabashedly theatrical. Something truthful and yet joyful. And I didn’t know how I was ever going to do that.”
But somehow she did and won the Pulitzer Play in drama this year. I was fortunate to see the play in its last weekend in New York this past Saturday. It’s a powerful piece of drama and instantly took me back to high school when an African-America creative writing teacher showed our class the film A Raisin in the Sun and I began to have a whole new understanding of drama beyond Smoking and the Bandit. That class is also where I first heard the name Zora Neale Hurston. A writer who Nottage has been compared to.
Nottage’s skill as a playwright did not come from nowhere. She was raised in Brooklyn around a family of storytellers and where she began writing plays as a teenage and later graduated from Brown University and has an MFA in Drama from Yale. While working for Amnesty International she wrote a short play called Poof! that she submitted to the Actors Theater of Louisville where it won a competition and she was off to the races.
Since then many of her plays have been performed; Mud, River and Stone, Por’Knockers, Crumbs from the Table, and Intimate Apparel. And in 2007 she was named a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award.
Before Ruined found its way to the stage at the Manhatten Theatre Club it was first commissioned and produced by the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The performance I saw in New York was theater at its best. It’s hard to be transplanted from a beautiful summer day in the city to some harsh realities in war-torn Africa–but somehow Nottage and the actors made it as seemless a transition as taking the subway from Grand Central Station to the Bronx.
And part of Nottage’s gift and talent as a writer is show us an incredibly painful world full of moral ambiguity and depravity and to weave a story of humor, humanity and hope.