“My playwriting began inside my mother’s gaze—that provocative way her eyes smiled after two glasses of Mondavi,” writes Lynn Nottage in the preface to a collection of her plays. This gaze was warm, she adds, but occasionally impenetrable. It was the look of a black woman who was trying to make sense of her life in Brooklyn in the 1960s.
Nottage has made a career dramatising the mysteries and quiet miseries of the black female experience—a view that is rarely seen on stage or on screen. “That’s who I am. What else would I write about?” she said to me after winning the Pulitzer prize for drama last year. “Just because it’s a unique perspective doesn’t mean it can’t offer something universal.”
The Pulitzer was one of at least ten awards won by “Ruined”, Nottage’s remarkable play about women who work in a brothel in war-torn Congo. Developed with and directed by Kate Whoriskey, after several research trips to Uganda, “Ruined” premiered in Chicago in 2008 and then transferred to off-Broadway, where it did such good business that its run was extended eight times. Now it moves to the Almeida in London, where Indhu Rubasingham is directing a new production, while another one gears up to go on tour. And all this for a play that, as Nottage drily remarked, is “about rape in the Congo, which doesn’t immediately seem like a slam-dunk idea for most theatres”.
It works theatrically because “Ruined” isn’t a lecture, or even a lament, but a moving story about women who reach for a life that isn’t defined by suffering, despite their grim circumstances. It was inspired by “Mother Courage”, but unlike Brecht, Nottage lets some light creep into the darkness, and leaves room for hope.
"Ruined" Almeida, London, April 15th to June 5th
Picture Credit: Susan Johann