Last week, I was able to get tickets to see "Ruined" by Lynn Nottage. The sold-out play has been remarkably well received, most notably for winning this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama. The Pulitzer Prize is undoubtedly prestigious. It's a fucking Pulitzer. The Drama award specifically has, in the past, gone to such plays as "You Can't Take it With You," "Our Town," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Death of a Salesman," "Angels in America," "Rent," and- in 2008- "August: Osage County." Many of these winners, as well as the numerous others, are classics, or were incredibly groundbreaking for their time. Given this, I was very excited for the production, and was completely disappointed. Not only was "Ruined" not Pulitzer-worthy, I wouldn't even call it good.
The production itself was part of the problem. The direction was muddled, with many scenes dragging to the point of absolute boredom. Those that were not boring generally had much of the cast dancing on stage while characters talked, which was fairly distracting (had what the characters were saying been more interesting, perhaps this would have worked.) The performances were mostly not even worth mentioning. Even the strong performances (to me, the only two performances that warranted this description were those for the characters of Mama and Salima) seemed hindered somehow. The actors were clearly strong, but were unable to rise above the production.
But my main problem was with the script itself- the Pulitzer Prize winning script. The play is about a whorehouse called Mama Nadi's in The Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country infamous for currently being one of the most dangerous in the world. Mama, the head of the establishment, begins serving two opposing military leaders- the guerilla rebel Jerome Kisembe and the government licensed army commander Osembenga. As she juggles keeping both herself and her employees safe amidst the conflict, she has to keep the two men apart, as neither can know that she serves the other. Were they to know that she'd not chosen "their side," it would mean almost certain death for anyone connected to the establishment. With Mama's story, we also learn the story of Sophie, a young girl who is sold to Mama's by her uncle Christian, a professor and salesman who frequently sells goods to Mama, but never partakes in the services offered. Sophie is simply a worker, however, not a prostitute. She has been 'ruined' by soldiers who pillaged her town, referring to the issue of dangerous female circumcision often practised in the DR Congo. The thing about these stories is that THEY COULD HAVE BEEN REALLY AMAZING STORIES! The conflict in the DR Congo is a terrifying one that not enough people are aware of. Female circumcision too is a very prevalent topic which more material should be published on. So, what went wrong?
Well, what went wrong was that the playwright, Lynn Nottage, seemed unable to treat these topics with the respect they deserve. There is nothing other than a program note to identify the play as taking place in the DR Congo. This could have been any troubled African country from the way the play was written, and had the names been different, it could have been a troubled country anywhere (think Serbia.) As for female circumcision, this topic was not even addressed. Were one to know anything about these topics before seeing the play, they would have learned nothing more. And, had they known nothing about these topics, they would have left having gained nothing out of watching the play, and still not know anything about these issues. Perhaps saying they'd not know anything is a bit harsh- they would be able to gather at the very least that members of rebel militia terrorist groups are mean. Mean and disrespectful to women.
Rather than focusing on these promising topics, Nottage chooses to spend the majority of the play focusing on the romance of Mama and Christian. When they embrace in the final scene, I was left dumbfounded. Have none of these characters learned anything? These characters have just been held at gunpoint, the play's name comes from female circumcision, a village has been burnt down, and Nottage still feels the need to give the play a traditional Hollywood ending? This is not only implausible, it's unsatisfying.
When the Pulitzer was awarded to "Angels in America" in 1993, it shed light on the growing concern over AIDS, as well as the growing homophobia in this country that accompanied the disease's rise. To award the Pulitzer to a play dealing with an important issue at this time makes sense. But "Ruined" is about the DR Congo conflict and female circumcision in theory alone. In the end, it's simply a fairly mediocre love story. It provides no insight, or anything to make it stand out. The Pulitzer Prize, in my mind, dropped the ball this year. My only hope is that the award for the play has managed to give people reason to do further reasearch on these crucial topics- research that I wish Ms. Nottage had done herself.