Staging her first show at Intiman since 2003, new artistic director Kate Whoriskey is remounting "Ruined," a Pulitzer Prize-winner about Congolese women in that war-scarred region, by Lynn Nottage.
The statistics are horrific: rampant sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the past decade. Many of the assaults by armed men — in the family home of the victim. Sexual slavery. Mutilated rape victims deemed “ruined,” and cast off by husbands and families.
It is hard enough to read such shocking details about the war-scarred region in a recent report commissioned by the aid group Oxfam.
But write a hit play about it?
Somehow, playwright Lynn Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey brought this tough subject vividly to life on American stages. In Nottage’s Off Broadway hit “Ruined,” they did so with factual candor, humor, compassion — and without making patrons flee at intermission.
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Set in a brothel in an eastern part of the Congo long riven with armed combat between sectarian forces, “Ruined” earned Nottage a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama. It is has also spurred viewers to action, and helped raise large sums to aid Congolese women victimized by sexual violence.
The lauded debut runs of “Ruined” in Chicago and New York also boosted the national reputation of Whoriskey — and helped secure her present job, as Intiman Theatre’s new artistic head.
Now, staging her first show at Intiman since 2003, Whoriskey is remounting “Ruined” with much of the acclaimed original cast, including Condola Rashad (gifted daughter of actress-director Phylicia Rashad).
The New York-based Nottage came to Seattle recently to lend her support. After a rehearsal at Intiman (where the show began previews on Friday), the two colleagues sat down to chat about the road to “Ruined” — which led them to trips to Africa, and a commitment to a new cause.
The idea for the play emerged as Whoriskey was staging Nottage’s 2004 urban comedy, “Fabulation.” (She also directed the debut of an earlier Nottage work, “Intimate Apparel.”)
“America was in the midst of the Iraq War,” recalled Whoriskey, “so we thought, why don’t we do something about the impact of war on women? How can we best tell their stories? And why not tell the story of [Congolese] women through the filter of ‘Mother Courage’?”
Using as a model that Bertolt Brecht drama about a woman hustling to survive and protect her children in a war zone, Nottage researched in earnest the horrific flood of sex crimes against women during DRC’s long-running civil war, which left more than 5 million dead. She contacted human-rights groups about the issue, and impulsively jetted to Africa (with Whoriskey) to do firsthand interviews.
“We went to Uganda, because the eastern Congo was very dangerous at that time,” reported Nottage. “The war was ‘officially’ over in 2002, but the conflict was still on.
“I think we went with curiosity and a sense of openness. I really had no idea what we would find, and part of me was a tiny bit frightened.”
The forthright, deeply engaged Nottage (whose plays often center on strong female figures) says her fears quickly dissipated when she met with Congolese refugee women.
“Amnesty International allowed us to conduct the interviews on their premises, and people came to us through human-rights groups. The first day we expected just a few, but about 20 women showed up. We were very surprised.”
Why would these stigmatized abuse victims confide intimate details of such trauma to foreign strangers? Because, said Nottage, “They had a real desire to go on record. These women had been banging their heads against the wall, trying to get their stories heard.”
Said Whoriskey, “This was the only time someone’s told me something private, in order to get something done. They were told we’d do something [to expose the violence], and that’s why they opened up to us.”
On Nottage’s Uganda trip, and later jaunts to Rwanda and Ethiopia without Whoriskey, she heard many shattering stories — of gang rape, murder, sexual enslavement, genital mutilation.
To “get another perspective,” she also talked to men. Some she met in northern Uganda had fought with the Lord’s Resistance Army, the notorious rebel force that has massacred Congolese civilians.
How to dramatize such brutality? In “Ruined,” Nottage left out much of the gruesome detail. “There are a couple of very graphic moments in the play, but I felt that two hours of such moments would desensitize people, make them turn off.
“If they turn off they become disinterested. So my strategy was, get you interested in the characters so you care about them.”
It was also a matter of balance. “In Africa, love still happens, births still happen, there’s still humor and beauty even in the most traumatic circumstances. I felt if the play was going to be truthful, it had to have those elements, too,” Nottage said.
“We always wanted to create human beings — not stereotypes, but individuals,” chimed in Whoriskey. “And there was something in the people we saw who had been victimized … They didn’t dwell all the time on their pain, but quickly tried to get back to normal life.”
Music, dance, romance and humor are also folded into “Ruined.” Mama Nadi, played here by Portia, runs a “respectable” bar-cum-bordello in a bloody region of the DRC. Soldiers from different armies drop in to drink, buy sex, get a brief respite from war. And the girls hired as waitress/prostitutes feel (relatively) safe in this weapons-free zone.
A hard-driving businesswoman who is also compassionate toward the outcast, needy women she takes in, Mama Nadi is patterned on Brecht’s Mother Courage.
But she’s also based in part on Rebecca Lolosoli, founder of Umoja (unity, in Swahili), a haven in Kenya for homeless women who “have been raped by soldiers or family members, or refused to submit to a clitorectomy or forced marriage,” noted Nottage. “It’s a powerful place, and Rebecca is an amazing person, as strong as Mama Nadi — but with a very different moral compass.”
The other characters are entirely invented, or composites of African men and women Nottage met. They include Sophie (Rashad), an ostracized teenage assault victim who becomes Mama Nadi’s surrogate daughter.
It gratified Nottage when the 2008 world premiere of “Ruined” at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre not only pleased critics but sparked activism. “A group of women in Chicago did a fundraising drive for Tanzi Hospital in the Congo [which performs surgeries to reverse sexual mutilation],” she said.
“We also had donors during the New York run [at Manhattan Theatre Club], and I contributed some of my Pulitzer money.” (Nottage and her husband also adopted a baby from Ethiopia.)
One big fan of “Ruined” is Lisa Shannon, the Portland-based founder of Run for Congo Women. Shannon is the author of “A Thousand Sisters,” a memoir about her work leveraging $650,000 in donations (via charity runs) for the aid group Women for Women International. These funds help to “sponsor” war-affected Congolese women.
In April, Shannon spoke about her activism at an Intiman event co-sponsored by the World Affairs Council. She’s also helping Intiman hold a charity run for the cause in October.
A three-time visitor to the Congo, Shannon described “Ruined” in an interview as a “powerful, deeply moving statement of hope despite the violence,” that “ultimately speaks to the resilience of the Congolese people.”
But she notes that with no functional judicial system, the DRC has created a “culture of impunity,” where sexual assault today is “shockingly common.” (The United Nations estimates 5,000 rapes occurred in 2009 in the South Kivu region alone.)
Nottage and Whoriskey know plays alone can’t end the violence but believe “Ruined” promotes awareness of it. As for how this show reflects Whoriskey’s future plans for Intiman, she said, “Is this a symbol of what I want to accomplish here? Absolutely.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org