SALT LAKE CITY — Reviewing a show like Ruined by Lynn Nottage is a slightly formidable task. My goal here is to talk about both the text as a standalone piece and the performance of that text. Ruined is a richly dark play set in the midst of a bloody civil war in the Congo.
The play takes place inside the walls of Mama Nadi’s Place, a simultaneous bar and brothel deep in the war-torn jungle. The women working and living at Mama Nadi’s are survivors of forced sex slavery at the hands of the gureilla warriors who frequently kidnap innocent women and girls to be used in terrible, demeaning ways. In order to understand this play, allow me to quote the director Richard Scharine’s note in the program: “In the Congo an estimated 48 girls and women aged 15 to 49 are raped each hour (over 400,000). Frequently these victims are driven away from their families for having ‘dishonored’ their families. For them, ironically, Mama Nadi’s is a refuge where they are fed, housed and receive rudimentary care and protection.” Their life of prostitution becomes their only safe haven and the only place in the world they can hope for survival. We follow Mama Nadi as she takes in two new girls to her business and learns that one of the girls is “ruined,” meaning she has been sexually abused to the point that she becomes anatomically disfigured. Being “ruined” is the ultimate dishonor in the culture of the Congo, regardless of how the women came to such a state – she is considered back luck and a cur.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Wow. This play is too heavy for me.” Rest assured, while the show is no light-hearted romp, it has its lighter moments and is sprinkled with beautiful moments of tenderness, redemption, forgiveness, and empowerment for the victims of this war. Ruined has received multiple awards and for good reason; it is an important story that needs to be told whether it is in New York, the Congo itself or Salt Lake City, UT.
I truly admire People Productions for tackling such a complex and important text. People Productions calls itself Salt Lake’s premier African-American theatre company and is headed by director Richard Scharine. The play performs in the Babcock theatre, located in the basement of the Pioneer Memorial Theatre and is set up with an adequate set resembling Nadi’s glorified shack. The performance is space is relatively small providing the intimacy that such a play requires.
Standout performances in the cast came from William Ferrer as the lovable and heartbreaking character Christian. His performance was honest and real; his emotional journey through the war and his evolving love for Mama Nadi read beautifully to the audience for which he desires recognition. Valerie Ahanonu also deserves recognition for her excellent portrayal of Josephine, the complex veteran girl at Mama Nadi’s. She brought depth and layers to her role in ways that surprised and delighted me.
The rest of the cast did an excellent job and the show truly had moments of brilliance. That being said, I did feel that overall the show was missing an essential piece: the sense of urgency and danger that is constantly hanging over these characters. I felt that moments that were written to be quick paced and fast talking lacked energy in their direction and performance. The life-or-death situation that these characters face day-in and day-out wasn’t really there. They felt very comfortable and complacent with their positions rather than conflicted and haunted by the horrors of war. There was also moment when a character broke the fourth wall in a way that was completely inconsistent with the world of the play and tainted a very important scene.
There were moments, however when this was not the case, such as a touching scene between the “ruined” girl Sophie (Jenny Rock) and the pregnant Salima (Nasheda Caudle) when Salima recounts her former life and breaks down weeping. Caudle brought her character in this moment to brink of complete mental collapse, inciting a relatable agony with all present. Another truly stunning moment came when Mama Nadi (Kandyce Marie Gabrielsen) made a drastic decision to help Sophie change her life. However, Nadi’s plot unravels and fails—thanks to the philandering trader Mr. Harari (Robert E. Cody)—and it was wonderful to watch Gabrielsen make a difficult decision and then see her heartbreak when she realized he had swindled her out of helping Sophie achieve a new life.
In summation, I will say that Ruined is one of the most important plays I have seen produced in years. This production had some holes in it and left me wanting a little more, but for the most part is a solid show. I would encourage any adult theatre-goer (this show is definitely not for children) to go to the Babcock and see this show.
PLEASE NOTE: Ruined contains strong language, adult themes and may not be suited for younger audience members.