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.
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.
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.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.