A heroic act is most often defined as a courageous deed done at great personal risk that helps save the lives of others, and Lynn Nottage and the women of her 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning play Ruined deserve attention for bravely sharing a difficult and brutal story and advocating for the cessation of a little talked about weapon of modern warfare: rape.
Nottage initially set out to write a historical fiction drama set in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the Second Congo Civil War because she was disturbed by the lack of press coverage the deadliest war since WWII received. She flew to Uganda in 2004 and 2005 to interview war refugees and was overwhelmed by how many women volunteered to recount personal and painful stories of being exposed to or victims of sexual violation. Nottage writes, “One by one, through tears and in voices just above a whisper, they recounted raw, revealing stories of sexual abuse and torture at the hands of both rebel soldiers and government militias. The word rape was a painful refrain, repeated so often it made me physically sick. By the end of the interviews I realized that a war was being fought over the bodies of women. Rape was being used as a weapon to punish and destroy communities. In listening to their narratives I came to terms with the extent to which their bodies had become battlefields.”
Ruined is set in Mama Nadi’s bar and brothel in the Congolese rain forest, where the shrewd proprietor, Mama Nadi serves Rebel and Government militia men who enter looking for a drink or a woman equally, and as the play progresses, both sides sound and look purposefully indistinguishable. The female characters, however, are much more complex and emotionally resonant, and it is their stories that give the play shape and substance. Mama offers women, who have been displaced and victimized by war, refuge in return for turning tricks in her saloon.
Early in the play, Mama reluctantly agrees to shelter two women though she doesn’t have the room. One young women, Sophie, is ruined, and she will not be able to earn her keep as a prostitute. Mama initially rejects Sophie – her status as a ruined woman will bring bad luck and potentially ruin her business. However, Mama relents and does accept Sophie, who has other skills that benefit the bar. Salima is a foil to Sophie. While Sophie was a university student before the outbreak of fighting and her rape, Salima was a poor country wife with a baby. While not ruined, Salima is a rape victim, who was abandoned by her husband, rejected by her village as a result. Rape has ruined her life, and her story is too common.
Declared at a weapon of war in 2008 by the United Nations, war-rape has been recorded in countless modern wars including WWII, Bangladeshi Liberation War, the Bosnia-Chechnya conflict, the Sudanese Civil War, and the Rwandan genocide. The Democratic Republic of the Congo was named the “Rape Capital of the World,” during the Second Congo Civil War. And this horrific practice persists today because “sexual violation of women erodes the fabric of a community in a way that few weapons can” (UNICEF). The shame and stigma associated with rape rips families apart as most victims become ostracized by their loved ones and communities as a result. Parents and/or spouses of war-rape victims abandon them, forcing them into a life of prostitution for survival.
While Nottage’s play is grim, it ends on a hopeful note, and many critics knock the play and playwright for its “soft-focus” ending. However, this ending doesn’t negate the issues. Nottage’s Ruined gives voice to the women whose lives and bodies have been the little told casualty of war. It doesn’t make for a typically entertaining night in the theatre, but it is a haunting and historically informative play that strongly advocates for the eradication of rape as a weapon of war. The women who shared their brutal stories with Nottage felt “it was important to go on record,” which is why according to Nottage, this is not a play about “victims, but survivors.” The end is hopeful, and this is for the survivors – the real heroines of this historical drama.
Click here to watch a short video clip about about the play. Read this important play!
Nottage, Lynn, La Jolla Playhouse, “Lynn Nottage on Ruined: Playwright Lynn Nottage writes about the journey in search of Ruined.” www.lajollaplayhouse.org/KBYG/Ruined/pg4.html
Nottage, Lynn, Ruined. Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 2009
Smith-Spark, Laura, “How did Rape Become a Weapon of War,” BBC News, 2004. www.news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/4078677.stm
UNICEF, “Sexual violence as a weapon of war,” www.unicef.org/sowc96pk/sexviol.htm