The Root Interview: Lynn Nottage on ‘Ruined’ Beauty

Our talk about her prize-winning play on sexual violence and war kicks off Women's History Month.

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Sexual violence against tens of thousands of women has been a chilling constant during the decade of chaos and conflict in Eastern Congo—so much so that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last July declared rape a weapon of mass destruction. The carnage inspired playwright Lynn Nottage to explore the fallout for women at war. In Ruined, Nottage introduces us to Selima, a simple girl raped and enslaved for months, then treated as damaged goods by her husband; Josephine, a chatty sexpot forced by circumstance into a life of sex work, and Sofie, a quiet beauty whose rape at the end of a bayonet has left her internal organs, and herself, “ruined.”

Nottage’s play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2009, is a powerful political statement and artistic achievement. The performances are full, the dialogue sharp and the context unmistakable. On the periphery of the stage: gunshots, war cries, abject poverty. In the spotlight: the proud and overweening Mama Nadi, played by actress Portia, a feminist who takes the concept of sanctuary seriously. In her brothel, the women trade their bodies for security, selling sex on their own terms—for a while.

The Enough Project at the Center for American Progress, a peace advocacy organization that runs a campaign to end sexual violence and exploitation in Eastern Congo, among other regions of the world, sponsored a reading and discussion of Ruined at the Kennedy Center in Washington. With a new strategy paper on the conflict minerals found in Congo, used in countless modern electronics such as cell phones and laptops, the policy shop is attempting to pick up where Ruined leaves off, and connect Western privilege to the sexual violence that Nottage documents in her play.

I sat with Nottage in the theater moments before the Kennedy Center performance. The conversation touched on politics, history, sisterhood and the trouble with finding strong women to own her words—and the stage.

The Root: What’s the significance of bringing this play to Washington?

Lynn Nottage: I was really excited to bring this to the seat of power because the audience will be in a position to bring about some kind of change in the Congo. One of the things we saw when we staged it in New York City is that we were very successful in bringing human rights organizations and NGOs and bodies like the United Nations in to see the play—and we found that lot of those folks were moved to act.

TR: This is not quite historical fiction—but is grounded in history and in fact. How did that inform your creative process?

LN: This play is not history. It’s a contemporary play, so the events that occur on the stage are events that are currently going on in countrysides in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. So in that respect it was different from other plays I have done, which were set at the beginning of the 20th century, or the late 1600s or 1700s. This play is very much of the moment and dealing with contemporary issues. When I was in the process of writing the play, it took on a greater urgency—I felt really compelled to write more quickly because I wanted to have a conversation with an audience who may not necessarily know what was going on, or who does know what is going on but didn’t feel compelled to act.

“Ruined” Trailer for Mixed Blood Theater from Ben McGinley on Vimeo.

TR: Did you travel to Eastern Congo for your research?

LN: In 2004 I went to Uganda, to the border, but the conflict I was looking at, in the Iture rainforest area the war was very much still going on and a lot of Congolese refugees were flowing over the border. It was fascinating. It’s fascinating in particular because Uganda is a place where there has been relative calm … But right over the border, you have these unspeakable things that are happening.