Last week’s referendum on South Sudan may provide a respite in the stories of one of the most savage and dehumanizing conflicts in Sub Saharan Africa, but we must not turn away from the uncomfortable news that persists elsewhere on that continent. The current Huntington Theatre production delivers this message in a most disturbing way.
Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined illuminates the horror of how cheap the life of women is in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, where “rape has become a weapon of war.” The production is a result of her interviews with war refugees from Congo, Sudan and Somalia. The powerful acting drives home to the audience the unspeakable brutality that girls and women suffer at the hands of both sides of African conflicts, no matter who may prevail from one day to the next. Nearly 20,000 U.N. “peacekeepers” are unable to secure the peace, much less keep it.
Rape, it is said, is cheaper than bullets. And, when girls and women survive the unspeakable brutalizing, their families refuse to take them back in. The setting is a bar/brothel in a small mining town in a rain forest. The owner, Mama Nadi played superbly by Tonye Patano, is herself a “ruined” woman who has somehow survived the horror of having her own body ravaged by setting up this micro-business. She insists she is saving the girls who work for her from the worse horror of being raped repeatedly by government militia or rebels roaming the jungle, but clearly she is also exploiting these teenagers. And yet at least she cares about them, trying to protect them from the worst violence, trying, unsuccessfully as it turns out, to arrange medical help for one of the “ruined” girls.
According to director Liesl Tommy’s notes, “200,000 females have been reported raped in the past decade” in just the eastern part of the Congo. One of the causes of the deadly fighting is to determine who will have access to coltan, a metal necessary to the manufacture of cell phones and computer chips. Eighty percent of the world’s supply of coltan is in the Congo. The play’s point is that we all, as consumers of electronics, are linked to this brutal war, whether we know it or not.
And we know it better as a result of “Ruined,” which runs through February 7th at the Huntington. Without giving away the ending, I will point out that the play does end on a note of hope. Playwright Tommy said in a Globe interview that “The ability to find ‘the joy in the tragedy,’ is extremely African.” It is also a slim reed on which to survive.
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