When the Pulitzer Prize committee chose “Ruined,” now playing at the Mixed Blood Theatre, for the drama award this year, it bypassed one of its own suggested stipulations to do so—that the play shed light on the American experience—presumably because it felt the play was too important (and too good) not to acknowledge. Of course, when a play is deemed “important,” it does not necessarily mean it’s engaging, much less entertaining—in fact, the opposite is often the case. With “Ruined,” however, playwright Lynn Nottage has managed all of the above. The play is at once enlightening, galvanizing, and uplifting.
The setting is the violent, freewheeling frontier of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a brassy brothel owner takes in abused women even as she arguably subjects them to further abuse in the arms of soldiers and miners. Played here with edgy gusto by Regina Marie Williams, best known for her portrayal of Dinah Washington in “Dinah Was” a few years back, she comes across like Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine in Casablanca—a seemingly apolitical opportunist whose long-buried sympathies occasionally rise to the surface.
The set-up personalizes the dry news reports of the African conflicts (which generally revolve around the male leaders involved) to the extent that there is a point in watching this play when you cease to feel that you are complicit in a theatrical exercise; the actors appear not to be delivering lines so much as the news. One could read a dozen articles in TIME about the brutality or one who learn this way—the oldest way—which is people telling stories to each other. This, of course, is the real greatness of the writing—that it allows the actors to inhabit it in such a way not that the dialogue seems incredibly realistic but seems, in fact, important.