Saturday, 10 February 2018

Ruined a biting, loving look at Afro-politics
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Tantalum.  Colloquially a.k.a. coltan. A chemical mineral prominent and essential to operate cell phones, video games and computers. Its Periodic Table of Elements symbol Ta is derived from the mythological Greek villain Tantalus that means, at core, "wretched". Worth more to Chinese computer producers than pure gold. And wretched is as wretched does. 

Writer Lynn Nottage's Ruined is set in the war-torn Ituri rain forest of northeast Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) in central Africa. Fights over mining rights for coltan -- vs. the locals' wish to leave the land alone for traditional pursuits of farming and hunting -- pit the ruling party of the day and its grasping cronies against various rebel groups. All in aid, of course, of "peace, order and good government". 

As almost always in war-stricken countries, it is the women who get "ruined" even more than the landscape the troops of men fight over. Particularly in this war, according to the Congo women whose stories form the basis of this embracing, horrifying snapshot of African historical fiction as imagined by a black American feminist.

Brutalized Sophie (Kikambe K Simamba) sings wistfully for fighters to "douse the flames of fear, my friends, brush aside the judgement" in her touching solo dream sequences that belie her personal war torture.
Photo credit Jalen Laine.
How it's all put together : As ex-Zaire dictator Mobutu Seke Seso's grip on power began to weaken in the early 90's, the subsequent civil war -- often called "Africa's world war" -- resulted in some 5 million deaths. Figure three times that many suffered grievous bodily harm & PTSD. Simple math dictates that more than half of those 20 million victims were women.

In 2004 writer Nottage and friend Kate Whoriskey traveled to DRC neighbouring country Uganda. There they interviewed dozens of Congolese women still living in Ugandan refugee camps about their experiences a decade earlier when the Zaire / DRC civil war was at its peak.

The story woven together was first produced in 2008 when DRC was relatively becalmed. Thus Ruined was never designed to be a platform for political preaching. Rather Nottage wants us to discover how compassion and empathy compete with the women's scar tissue. How despite the horror all around, a piece of humanity & community amidst all the pain and yearning could be found.

What the show brings to the stage : Twelve actors play some two dozen parts to roll out this tale. Chief protagonist is Mama Nadi (Mariam Barry). She runs a saloon cum bawdyhouse for all the district's combatants as well as the tantalum miners. Her one immutable precondition is that the fighters leave their bullets on the bar. And then they must wash themselves. 

Her character obviously brings to mind Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage. Nottage quite readily admits Mama Nadi is a knock-off. The central paradox at play is the desire to protect one's children but at the same time be bold enough to profiteer from the bloody violent chaos that surrounds.

Three refugees from the civil war are Mama Nadi's primary focus. Josephine (Rachel Mutombo) was a tribal chieftain's daughter, but nobody cares about her pedigree. She is a favoured courtesan in Nadi's clean and safe outpost in the centre of the conflict. 

Shortly two other rape and pillage victims arrive, for a price, thanks to traveling salesman "Professor Christian" (Tom Pickett). A farmer's wife Salima (Shayna Jones) was kidnapped from her garden and roped "like a goat" to a tree in the woods for five months to be abused and raped at will by a rebel militia. Teen-age Sophie (Makambe K Simamba), meanwhile, was mutilated during rape by a bayonet. 

Production values that hi-lite the script :  This is a script not just brawny and sinewy. Its characters are restitched into ersatz whole cloth after being so hideously torn and abused. To match the colourful clothes designer Megan Gilron chose for them, Corina Akeson's selections of African soukous music -- a kind of rumba style -- quietly underscore the stage action. 

Ultimately the plot is sentimental and charmingly trite once all the violence runs out the door of the bordello. The Carolyn Rapanos set is well-wrought : a clever mix of plastic and wooden chairs as if rescued from the local dump. Round saloon tables like the old B.C. pub standard issue just denuded of their red terry cloth covers. Jillian White's scalloped light ropes above the saloon floor are perfectly faux-elegant.

'Professor' Christian (Tom Pickett) has always had a mad-on for Mama Nadi (Mariam Barry) who he supplies with booze, Fanta soft drinks, condoms and the odd box of Belgium chocolates for her bordello. It is ultimately more than a strictly business relationship of the head, lots of sentimental heart at show's end.
Photo credit Jalen Laine
Acting pin-spots:  The women and their tales grab us first in our throats but ultimately in our hearts. Because as poet songstress Buffy Ste. Marie put it, "God is alive / Magic is afoot" whenever souls reach across the abyss to touch one another.

And indeed it is the three supporting actors playing Josephine, Salima and Sophie who provide the most electric moments of the show, without a doubt, particularly their trio riffs. One-off, Rachel Mutombo as Josephine was an astonishing amalgam of pout, snot, coquette and muscle. Of the men, Pickett's affable and chummy carny-hustler Christian stole the audience's heart from Moment 1.

N.B. It is important to note that Pacific Theatre associate Mariam Barry stepped in on Ground Hog Day to take over the demanding / commanding role of Mama Nadi whose dialogue threads and weaves the whole play together. Brava! Ms. Barry. No script-in-hand. No prompter. No dropped lines the night through. She needs be deservedly proud of her work indeed. 

Who gonna like: Historical fiction fans who read novels will delight at this show. It is episodic. Measured. Develops slowly with calculation. For #MeToo followers -- godspeed! their rightful cause -- this is almost must-viewing to put the subjugation, victimization and violence-against-women incidents of recent history in a particularly raw, non-Western way despite the script's American authorship. Quite astonishing its effect.

Long, yes. At 150 minutes elapsed-time overall it requires patience and focus. It would help, I believe, to know a bit about recent Zaire / DRC history before settling into one's seat. But regardless, the jump-up standing-o the show got last night was testament to its power and ability to magnetize both head and heart. 

Just next week's shows before this unique piece of drama exits into the wings.

Particulars Written by Lynn Nottage and originally directed by Kate Whoriskey. Produced by Dark Glass Theatre in a Pacific Theatre presentation. At Pacific Theatre stage, Hemlock @ 12th.. Through February 17th. Run-time 150 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission. Tickets and schedule information via or by phone at 604.731.5518.

Production team.  Director Angela Konrad.  Assistant Director / Producer Jessica Garden. Set & Properties Designer Carolyn Rapanos. Sound Designer Corina Akeson. Lighting Designer Jillian White.  Costume Designer Megan Gilron.  Properties Assistant Jennifer Jantsch.  Stage Manager Samantha Pauliuk.  Assistant Stage Manager Jenessa Galbraith.  Fight Directors Ryan McNeill Bolton & Mike Kovac.

Performers :  Mariam Barry (Mama Nadi).  Damon Calderwood (Mr. Harari).  Mikaela Fuqua (Musical Director). Shayna Jones (Salima).  Michael Kiapway (Jerome Kisembe / Various).  Agape Mngomezulu (Simon / Various).  Rachel Motombo (Josephine).  Adrian Neblett (Fortune / Various).  Tom Pickett (Christian).  Donald Sales (Commander Osembenga / Various). Kakambe K Simamba (Sophie).  Jacky Yenga (Elder / Cultural Consultant / Musician / Choreographer).


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