|Carla Duren (Sophie) and Pascale Armand (Salima) in Lynn Nottage's "Ruined" at the Huntington, a co-production with La Jolla Playhouse and Berkeley Repertory Theatre directed by Liesl Tommy, playing January 7 through February 6 at the Boston University Theatre. (Photo: Kevin Berne)
Sounds of quaking birdsong, monkey chatter and drums greet the audience arriving at the Huntington Theatre Company’s riveting production of Lynn Nottage’s play “Ruined.” The stage set resembles the scene of a tropical party, with palm trees looming over an outdoor bar and bandstand.
Directed by South Africa native Liesl Tommy, this co-production of the Huntington with La Jolla Playhouse and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, on view through Feb. 6, turns the scene into an uneasy world. Here, fear rather than joy may compel a girl to dance and a congenial act — buying someone a drink — can become a way of debasing a man.
Nottage received a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for the play, a clear-eyed close up of how people — women in particular — endure in the wake of horror.
“My play is not about victims, but survivors,” Nottage wrote about the play, which was inspired by her 2004 interviews with women fleeing civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The playwright’s other inspiration was Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 antiwar masterpiece, “Mother Courage and Her Children.” In Brecht’s play, a woman runs a brothel in wartime. But unlike Mother Courage, an abstract figure, Nottage’s Mama Nadi is a flesh-and-blood character.
The play focuses on a trio of young women and Mama, their boss and protector (Tonye Patano, Heylia James in Showtime’s “Weeds”).
Mama runs her brothel and bar in a small mining town on the crossroads of competing armies. She insists that her customers leave their bullets and propaganda outside, brandishing a machete like an exclamation point to punctuate her commands.
Although Mama demands that her girls perform, she shows them her own brand of compassion — unless their behavior threatens her hard-won livelihood.
In the first scene, Nottage uses a caged parrot to give a heavy hint of Mama’s character. Bantering with a salesman, Christian (Oberon K.A. Ajepong), she explains that nobody wanted the parrot so she’ll take care of it until she finds a buyer.
Christian convinces Mama to take on the two fragile-looking girls he has brought with him: Sophie (Carla Duren) and Salima (Pascale Armand). They have been cast out by their families and villages after being raped by soldiers. The limping Sophie is so damaged that she is useless as a prostitute. Mama summons the sullen Josephine (Zainab Jah), who takes the girls to their quarters.
Like the lives they portray, the play asks a lot of the actors, and the fine cast delivers. Each character is “ruined” in a different way, even Mama. They go through the worst and go on, to more violence, but also to tenderness — and perhaps healing.
Nottage modeled Salima on the first woman she interviewed, who survived multiple rapes. Armand is searing as her Salima tells Josephine and Sophie that she spent five months “tied up like a goat.”
Sophie shows herself to be as resourceful and wily as Mama but more open to life’s possibilities. Salima tells Sophie that she “almost looks happy” as she sings to entertain the men. Sophie responds that when she sings, she prays.
Mama scoffs at girls, who still get giddy over a romance novel, and she chastises them for dreaming of their former lives — or a new life. But she shows herself capable of a magnanimous act of hope.
The set by Clint Ramos, lighting by Lap Chi Chu, and original music and sound design by Broken Chord Collective bring the world within and beyond Mama’s place alive on stage.
On the bandstand, two fine musicians accompany Sophie: Nigerian guitarist Adesoji Odukogbe and percussionist Alvin Terry, whose kit includes a Central African Makuta drum and a trashcan.
Randy Duncan’s choreography and Kathleen Geldard’s costumes efficiently convey character. Josephine prefers tube tops and mini-skirts but obliges her admiring client, the well-heeled white grifter Mr. Harari (Joseph Kamal), by putting on the traditional African dress he has given her. The militiamen wear anonymous camouflage uniforms, as if they could be fighting on either side. Christian projects dignity in his ill-fitting, second-hand suits.
The soldiers’ crude b-boy moves have the aggression of hip hop but lack its joy. Josephine, the hardest working of the prostitutes, whirs like a wind-up doll to placate Mama’s moody patrons before breaking down with rage.
Although the roles of the militiamen are little more than cartoons, the actors who portray them inject each thug with personality, from the imperious brutality of Commander Osembenga (Adrian Roberts) to the frantic swagger of his menacing henchmen Jerome (Wendell B. Franklin) and Laurent (Kola Ogundiran).
But two soldiers are given a human dimension. Camped out in the rain hoping to see the wife he had spurned, Salima’s husband Fortune (Jason Bowen) speaks of healing to his loyal friend and fellow soldier Simon (Okieriete Onaodowan) and questions the war, telling him, “We are farmers.” Like his wife, he wants his life back.
More than the play’s benign ending, what lends this production its convincing note of hope is Duren’s incandescent Sophie. As she sings, her plaintive but joy-tinged voice joins with the ebullient soukous music to suggest a people of resilience.