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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TR: Ruined is a story in translation—not through language, or through time but through context. How do you think this will resonate with African-American women? Is there a conversation to be had between Africa and America?

LN: I like to tell a story—when I was conducting the first round of interview with Congolese women I was wearing this very colorful bubu I had bought in Senegal because it was very comfortable, and I wanted the woman to feel at ease with me. And a photograph was taken, and when I returned home and I was going through my photographs, it took a moment for me to pick myself out. I realized that I am telling a story not just about these women, I am telling a story about myself but for the grace of God, which is the context. And I also feel a tremendous sisterhood with these women.

TR: Speaking of women and war: The U.S. government, in Congo, in southern Sudan, in Afghanistan, has been grappling with protections for women and their rights. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made female empowerment—whether through education or reproductive rights—a centerpiece of foreign policy. How does Ruined fit in?

LN: This play is a tipping point on this issue, specifically with regards to the Congo. Will it hold water? I don’t know—I wish that I could look 10, 20 years off. But I do think it’s important that we have a secretary of state that has made women’s issues a priority. It’s good that we have a UN Secretary-General who has said, at least in speeches, that he has made this an issue a priority. That’s a huge step forward. I worked at Amnesty International years ago, and I remember how difficult it was just to talk about women’s rights in the context of human rights. So I feel that there are huge strides that have been made already. And I think that there’s been language written in that equating sexual violence with human rights abuses and war crimes that’s really important from a legal framework. So, I guess I hope so. But as we know, men will be men.

TR: Do you consider this to be a domestic play, a political play, a fantasy?

LN: Our relationship to art shifts, and something that was not political can suddenly become political and something that seems political can suddenly become apolitical. So I am hesitant to label the play, and just [want to] allow the audience to have whatever relationship they want with the play.

TR: When you were casting these women, who inhabit the heart and soul of this play, what did you look for? What impact might your work have on blacks and the performing arts?

LN: I looked for women who were self-possessed, who had a combination of vulnerability and real strength. Some women would come in, and they could get the vulnerability side, but they couldn’t access their strength and couldn’t find a way to transcend the sadness to find the resilience and hope in the character. And then you had the reverse, there were these women who had all this strength and had this beautiful vibrato in their voice—but were not able to find the vulnerability.

Really, there weren’t a lot of women in this age range who had led, who had carried a show by themselves. And I hadn’t realized that until we were looking through résumés and casting the play, and we thought, wait a minute, there just aren’t that many actresses who had that experience of commanding the stage. The woman who originated the role of Mama Nadi, her impulse was always to gravitate to the periphery of the stage because that’s where she has been directed and blocked. And I said, ‘this is your play; find your place of power; you can command attention, you can go to the center of stage.’

I think this is a wonderful age for young, African-American authors, and I think there are a lot of truly talented playwrights who are beginning to assert their voice on main stages. They’ll get there.

TR: Have you seen Precious: Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire? How does it interact with the women and themes in Ruined?

LN: Push was one of my absolute favorite books. You close it, and you just exhale. I was really curious to see how they were going to translate it to the screen. I do think they were true to a lot of the elements of the book, and it’s very raw and very dark, and there are some moments of real beauty and some outstanding performances. I think I started crying five minutes in, and I was in such a bad mood when I left the theater. Is it a perfect film? I don’t know.

TR: What are you hoping audiences will take away from this production as it travels the country and the world?

LN: Act. Put down your newspaper and actively get engaged. It’s very easy for all of us to be armchair activists. And very easy for all of us to be outraged in the moment—but very difficult to choose to do something tangible to implement change. So hopefully there will be one or two people compelled to do something.

Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.