I have not seen the play. I don’t like the title, but I do like what is being attempted and the idea that what women have gone through in Africa can be brought into a play. It is a step.
The next one, I think, will happen when plays are written straight from the lives or the stories (as Prof. Micere Githae Mugo once told me–see Silences in African History, p. 9) which “refuse to be written” because the young girl who could not do the assignment (of talking to a MauMau veteran) had been raped by the very person she was supposed to go and talk to. He had raped her after he came back from one of the concentration camps set up by the British under the MauMau. There, he had been tortured and, as a consequence, lost his mind.–Jacques Depelchin
SO many decades and productions have washed against the muddy wheels of Bertolt Brecht’s play “Mother Courage and Her Children” that the title has sunk deep into the ordinary and familiar. But when the playwright Lynn Nottage spoke the first two words of the title to Congolese women in the refugee camps of Uganda in 2004, she said, they repeated them in such a way that the words became woundingly new.
Ms. Nottage had traveled to Africa to research the brutalities and damage Congolese women had suffered in their country’s civil conflict, and incorporate her findings into an adaptation of Brecht’s 1939 work. Hearing the women, in French, speak the words “mother, courage” back to her — emphasis on “mother,” a sorrowful pride inflecting “courage” — “changed everything,” she said.
She called the new work “Ruined” and gave its seminal character the name Mama Nadi. Currently in previews at the Manhattan Theater Club’s Stage I on West 55th Street, it opens Feb. 10 under the direction of Kate Whoriskey in a co-production with the Goodman Theater in Chicago, which presented the premiere there this fall.
One of the first things Ms. Nottage was able to jettison by developing her own conception rather than staging a version of Brecht’s was the “kind of distancing Brecht strove for from his audience so he could engage it intellectually,” she said. “I believe in engaging people emotionally, because I think they react more out of emotion” than when they are “preached to, told how to feel. It was important that this not become a documentary, or agitprop. And that Mama Nadi is morally ambiguous, that you’re constantly shifting in your response to her.”
Seated in a cafe near the brownstone in Brooklyn where she grew up surrounded by the African and African-American art her parents collected, and where she still lives, Ms. Nottage, 44, talked about how the combination bar and brothel that the enigmatic Mama runs in a small mining town both shelters and exploits an increasingly close group of women. They have ended up there after being driven from their homes, communities, marriages and families by the rape, mutilation, torture and other forms of violence employed as weapons in a blatantly senseless war.
Under the watchful, wary eye of Mama (played by Saidah Arrika Ekulona), they keep paid company with a revolving assortment of regulars: soldiers and miners, a rebel leader and his archenemy, a slippery merchant-of-all-trades and a courtly, romantic traveling salesman. Several of the actors are cast in multiple roles.
That multiple casting was a necessity for a relatively modest production with epic aspirations, explained Ms. Nottage, who was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2007 for her achievements. But it was also an artistic decision that helped add to the play’s sad ambiguities and open-endedness.
Each character in a play by Ms. Nottage is always alive with personal details and individual specifics, said Jerry Patch, who first met her when she was a young playwright at the Sundance Theater Lab, and who recently became the director of artistic development at the Manhattan Theater Club. “Because of the scope and ambition of her plays she’s like a sculptor who refines and refines,” he said. “The poetry in her work is complex and compelling.”
The play’s undergirding of history, politics and warfare, all still unspooling in war-torn Africa, made character development even more daunting than in acclaimed period pieces by Ms. Nottage like “Intimate Apparel,” “Las Meninas” and “Crumbs From the Table of Joy,” which is set in the 1950s.
On the one hand, “the way the crisis was presented in the telling by these Congolese women was very different than we expected,” said Ms. Whoriskey, who accompanied Ms. Nottage to Uganda. “They don’t have the emotional energy to cry, or to express the tragedy of what happened except through a quieter story that is very specific, and even more terrible.”
On the other hand, Ms. Nottage said, she was intent on suffusing the play with the utmost authenticity when it came to the larger culture, including music and song. “So much writing about Africa is like pornography, depicting only the violence,” she said. “I also wanted to show the beauty, how gorgeous it is.”
She was helped in this by the fact that several of the cast turned out to be from immigrant backgrounds, and some even had firsthand experience of war zones in Africa. Kevin Mambo, who plays Commander Osembenga, was born in Zimbabwe, Ms. Nottage said, and “when I wanted a certain gesture, he could give it to me.”
The ugly realities of the crimes committed — and, in Ms. Nottage’s view, the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources by the West, which bears much of the responsibility for those misdeeds — have also taken their toll in rehearsals at times, with the normally outgoing and affectionate cast becoming “somber and quiet,” she said. “It has taken us all to some very dark places.”
Yet she says she thinks audiences will discover a surprising sense of hope in “Ruined,” nurtured by the connection she made as an African-American woman to the continent of her ancestry. “I have a photograph of me taken with some of the women in Uganda, and I’m wearing a dress I got in Senegal,” she said. “I literally can’t pick myself out in the picture.”