Invictus Theatre doesn’t mess around. While many other companies returned from the pandemic shutdown with lighter fair, that absolutely cannot be said about Artistic Director Charles Askenaizer and the group he oversees. Performing at the Reginald Vaughn Theatre (formerly The Frontier), Invictus and Askenaizer immediately challenged players and audiences alike with Hamlet, only to follow up with Lynn Nottage’s searing Ruined. (It won’t get any easier, either. Later this year, the company will present Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) The great news is that Askenaizer and Invictus have the chops to pull these heavy plays off.
Ruined won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for its almost-too-realistic examination of the plight of women in the war-torn Congo. This production, though it is not perfect, does these women justice while also shoving the violent, gun-toting men who would rape and kill them without a thought right into the faces (and eardrums) of the patrons of this tiny theatre. In director Ebby Offord’s production, the audience is pretty much right in the action, making the fear even more real.
The play takes place in a bar/brothel owned and run by Mama Nadi (Tekeisha Yelton-Hunter in a potentially career-making performance). Her “girls”—she has more but we meet only three—have been broken or all but broken by the ongoing state of war in their country, where women are considered prizes to be won, used, and discarded by the soldiers on both sides. That is one of the true horrors revealed in this play: neither the army of the state nor that of the insurgents is on the side of “good” or “right”; they are just on the side of gaining or maintaining power. Mama Nadi is not truly “good” either: she buys the women in her brothel from traffickers, and though she treats them well, she is ready to throw them out the second they displease her.
This is clearly why we get to know all of the women as individuals with detailed pasts and personalities, whereas most of the men are interchangeable parts in the war machine (illustrated by Offord’s ensemble, in which the same actors show up on both sides of the conflict). Not all of the men are directly involved in the war, though they profit from it. One of these, a salesman named Christian (Stanley King), clearly cares for Mama Nadi and shows up with poetry, gifts, and supplies on a fairly regular basis. Among his “supplies” are women ravaged by war: no one here is completely innocent except for the unfortunate girls themselves. In the opening scene, he brings two broken women to Mama’s place: the first is his own niece Sophie (played by Jenise Sheppard), a girl who once had college aspirations before being raped so repeatedly and so violently that she is, in the vernacular of the play, “ruined”; that is, her vagina is so damaged that it’s no longer possible for her to have sex and she “smells like the rot of meat.”
The second woman, Salima (Courtney Gardner), has also been brutalized. Kidnapped from her home by soldiers, she spent half a year in the brush being repeatedly and brutally assaulted. When she did finally get free and returned home, her village—and the husband she loved—rejected her as being dirty, the blame for the rapes clearly on the woman instead of where it belonged. (That husband, played by Harvell, spends the second act trying to get her back without ever considering his own role in her plight.) Now pregnant from one of her rapists, Salima is little more than a walking shell much of the time. (Strangely, she seems more upset that her husband was off buying her a pot at the time of her abduction than she is about his later rejection, undoubtedly a fixation of her pain-shattered mind.)
It’s impossible to know what to believe about the factions in the war, as allegiances are constantly shifting and the two leaders (played by Boler and the imposing Edward Neequaye) each place the blame squarely on the other. Not even the foot soldiers seem to understand what is going on at times. The other non-soldier we spend significant time with, a jewel broker named Mr. Harari (Javier Carmona), explains these shifting alliances: “The man I shake hands with in the morning is my enemy by sundown.” Harari, who is mostly on the periphery of things in this play, seems to be hanging out at the bar to have some fun after a day of trading and to be with one of the girls. That girl, Josephine (Jemima Charles), thinks he might be a means for her to escape, though his own seriousness toward her is not clear. (Interestingly, Josephine often chides the other two girls for their own too-romantic daydreams brought on by the romance novels that Sophie reads them.) Neither Harari nor Christian is an icon of male perfection, but they both are light years beyond the soldiers, played by an ensemble of Brandon Boler, Kejuan Darby, Barry Irving, and Tamarus Harvell. And Neequaye’s military leader is instantly frightening for clear reasons: he couldn’t care less if he executes women and children for his cause. Boler’s rebel leader is little better.
But as much as the men dominate the play with their guns, predatory actions, violence, and aggression, this play’s focus is on the way that the war affects women. Sophie is not the only one “ruined” either physically or emotionally by the actions of men, but Sheppard’s performance is raw and intense, her omnipresent limp a physical manifestation of the internal pain Sophie feels. That pain especially becomes visible when she is forced to sing for these soldiers, which is her main job since she cannot have sex. Sheppard’s deeply emotional voice is a reflection of everything that has been done to Sophie. It’s her way of expressing her anger and hatred disguised as “entertainment,” and the soldiers cannot see through the song to the disgust she feels. Salima, whose past comes out slowly during the play (including one harrowing monologue in which Gardner somehow both rawly reveals the pain and shows how desperately she wants to hide it). Josephine, instantly jealous of the newcomers, whom she sees as potential rivals, eventually bonds with them in quiet scenes of female solidarity, which sometimes include Mama Nadi, who Nottage allows to soften as the play goes on.
Mama Nadi is clearly an outlier here for women: she is a business owner who takes no guff from the soldiers who patronize her establishment and is able to straddle the middle of this conflict with her ability to calm outraged male emotions with soft words or free drinks. (That she can do so is another sign of how shallow their feelings run; it’s impossible to imagine these things assuaging the women in their despair.) Mama Nadi’s carefully groomed neutrality keeps her business safe, but it too is an affectation: she cares deeply for her girls, especially Sophie, and there are moments when Mama Bear makes an appearance to maintain control. Yelton-Hunter finds all of the (sometimes dark) nuances of this inscrutable character and makes us almost forget—if not quite forgive—that she is involved in trafficking women as we watch her carefully and deliberately move through this male-dominated world. She can indeed be ruthless, but she is a victim herself, and her forcefulness is a response to her own past.
Almost all of the elements of Invictus’ production work brilliantly, from Levi Wilkins’ lighting to Warren Levon’s impressive sound design to the perfect costumes (Rueben Echoles and Marquecia Jordan) and props (Askenaizer and Kevin Rolfs). All of this is tied together by Offord’s solid direction. Tasked with the extremely difficult job of making this play work in this tiny space, she works with choreographer Jessica Pearl Asteria Bailey and fight/intimacy designer Lana Whittington to fill her stage with action. Whether it is the coupling going on stage left, the billiards stage right, the bar action upstage, the dancing and conversation center stage, or the animated soldiers’ discussions downstage, there is always something going on in or around Mama Nadi’s. Some of the nearly constant action doesn’t quite work (most particularly at the bar, where so much Orange Fanta and beer is left unfinished in bottles that are constantly being replaced that it’s a wonder any of these people have any money—who is that wasteful in circumstances such as this?). Offord is clearly just keeping with the script, which often mentions these replenishments, but something different was required. When Christian comes in utterly parched, for instance, asking for a cold Fanta, maybe he should chug the whole thing before asking for a second one instead of leaving the barely-consumed beverage on the bar right in front of him? And the “pool table” action, if anyone is paying attention to it, is artificial and forced (not to mention that it constantly calls attention to the lack of pockets on the table).
None of this minutia diminishes from the power of the play and this production, which is devastating. There is a reason Ruined won a Pulitzer, and it is clearly on display on Thorndale Ave until March 20. Tickets are available from Invictus Theatre.