Playhouse gets ‘Ruined’
The La Jolla Playhouse presents the searing, Pulitzer Prize-winning drama
Liesl Tommy has been traveling back to Africa . Literally and figuratively. The actor-turned-director was raised in a black township of Capetown , South Africa . Last year, she directed a play about the war in Liberia and its aftermath. Then she spent the summer in Kenya with the Sundance Theatre Lab, working with theater artists from around the African continent. And last spring, she mounted a production of “Ruined” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (continuing through October 31).
Now, she’s revisiting that haunting, harrowing and hope-filled play about war and survival, helming a co-production of “Ruined” that starts at the La Jolla Playhouse, then travels to the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston and Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Lynn Nottage’s drama premiered in Chicago , then moved Off Broadway, where it took New York by storm, winning Obie and Drama Desk Awards for Best New Play, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2009.
“Ruined” manages to bring the distant jungles of equatorial Africa into our midst – scorching them into our minds and hearts. The story is set in a small mining town in the Democratic Republic of Congo, on the edge of the Ituri rainforest. The indomitable Mama Nadi , a fierce and apolitical businesswoman, runs a bar/canteen/brothel that serves as a refuge for soldiers, salesman, rebels and ten brutalized females. Their horrific stories were based on interviews Nottage conducted with survivors, repeatedly raped women whose numbers have continued to rise since the war’s official end in 2003.
Director Tommy thought it was important to include Africans in her cast.
“They bring a sense of the rhythms, life and language of the continent,” she says. “It’s also very meaningful for them, as it is for me. These multi-dimensional characters speak directly to their roots.”
The title, “Ruined,” refers to the physical injuries and emotional devastation sustained by the women who have been raped and mutilated. It’s referred to metaphorically, but there are some shocking details about what the soldiers or the rebels have done, and how these women are shunned by their families and communities.
“Lynn Nottage is such an incredibly skilled writer,” says Tommy. “She puts into this insane world, this hideous environment, human beings we all know and can identify with: one battling alcoholism; another, insecurity; a husband-wife conflict; a romance that may or may not work. The emotions are skillfully wrought. There’s a tremendous amount of poetry in the language.”
And there’s a great deal of music, too, “a joyful, soundscape of Congolese music and dancing that provides counterpoint to the drama.”
The play is about human survival, says Tommy. “How people hold onto their humanity in the face of a brutal and inhuman world. It’s about the choices and compromises we have to make to survive. Sitting comfortably in the West, it’s so easy to judge. But how do we know what we’d do?
“To do this play justice, to do it right, the actors have to go so deep. And when they do, it becomes a communal experience with the audience. That’s when theater can be truly cathartic, can change people’s lives and perceptions.”
“Ruined” runs November 16-December 19 in the Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse.
Performances are Tues-Wed at 7:30pm, Thurs-Sat at 8pm, Sun at 7pm, Sat-Sun at 2pm (except Sun. Nov. 21). No performance Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 15
Tickets — $31-66 — are available at 858-550-1010 or www.lajollaplayhouse.org