In the course of writing a new play, Lynn Nottage sat in despair at her Brooklyn apartment as she looked over reams of research she had accumulated. The playwright had just spent two months at a Uganda refugee camp, interviewing women who had been raped and brutalized in the fierce Civil War that has wracked the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo for decades.
"I thought to myself, 'This play will be the ruin of me,' " she recalls of the process of wrestling the material into a dramatic narrative. "I knew I wanted to tell a story that was not agitprop, that was universal, epic and unabashedly theatrical. Something truthful and yet joyful. And I didn't know how I was ever going to do that."
The enthusiastic critical reception for Nottage's drama, aptly titled "Ruined," indicates that she has succeeded. Life is brimming, if hanging by a slender thread, among the denizens of a Congolese bar/bordello: war profiteers, Kalashnikov-bearing rebels, a half-dead parrot and a hard-charging madam and her girls. The latest additions to Mama Nadi's "house" are two grim casualties: Salima, a young woman repeatedly raped and cast out by her husband, and her friend, Sophie, a literate, sad-faced 18-year-old who has been genitally mutilated by rebel soldiers, "ruined" in the parlance of the day. While Nottage unflinchingly tells what she calls their "undertold stories," there is nonetheless joy, humor, music and, perhaps most controversially, romance in "Ruined."
"A journey into the deepest, darkest disquietude . . . this remarkable drama has the density of lived experience, rare for a play in any era," Michael Feingold wrote in the Village Voice in February when "Ruined" opened off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club after a world premiere at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. The limited engagement has since been extended until May 10. For the 44-year-old Nottage, it is arguably the high point in an eclectic career that has included dramas revolving around a turn-of-the-century New York seamstress ("Intimate Apparel"), a high-toned public relations executive on the skids ("Fabulation"), political activists bombing an FBI building ("Por'knockers"), and a romance between Queen Marie-Therese and a black dwarf in the court of Louis XIV ("Las Meninas").
"I'm a schizophrenic writer," says the affable Nottage over lunch at the West Bank Cafe, a theatrical Manhattan hangout. Married to filmmaker Tony Gerber, she is balancing motherhood (they have a young daughter, Ruby), social activism and a prolific career in the course of which, she notes, she always writes two plays at the same time. She concurrently wrote "Ruined" and "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," a play about an aging starlet and her black maid in 1930s Hollywood who seek validation in a "Gone With the Wind"-type epic. "I need a release from whatever I'm writing," she explains.
A common thread throughout Nottage's disparate works is the celebration of strong, forceful women, a genetic coding she inherited as a fourth-generation African American Brooklynite. In fact, the death of her mother, Ruby, a schoolteacher, in 1998 and the birth of her daughter marked an emotional sea change in Nottage that led to "Ruined." "I always thought of my mother as a warrior woman, and I became interested in pursuing stories of women who invent lives in order to survive," the playwright says. "I felt part of a larger community more than ever."
Nottage says that as she read reports of the impact on women in the Congolese conflict, she was moved to bridge the gap between the awful headlines and the safety and comfort of her Brooklyn Heights apartment. To that end she traveled to a refugee camp in Uganda in 2004 and again in 2005 with Kate Whoriskey, a frequent collaborator and the director of "Ruined."
The playwright and director interviewed more than 30 Congolese women, most of whom talked because they felt it might provide a catharsis. "It was important to unburden themselves," she says. "They wanted to go on record and they wanted to visualize a better existence for themselves. It was about healing and having the courage to go on."
Nottage's original concept was to update "Mother Courage," Brecht's drama of a stoic 17th century European profiteer. Yet once stateside, she fretted that the idea was no longer valid. The stories she heard demanded their own context, the specific world of the Congo. Yes, with its Brechtian opportunists but also poets and singers. As such, she was also determined to avoid the "pornography" she thinks has pervaded much of the Western press' reporting on Africa: the exploitive and exclusive picture of a continent lashed with intractable despair, poverty and violence. "There was no way I was going to write about Africa and not include the triumphant continuity of life that had also been part of my experience there. It's not just war and famine all the time," Nottage says. "I knew that the audience would have to hear the horrific stories. But I didn't want to be sensationalistic. The audience had to be ready to hear the horrors, otherwise it would be too easy to dismiss them. I knew I had to seduce them first."
A good part of that seduction lies with the character of Mama Nadi (Saidah Arrika Ekulona), a force of nature who loves lipstick and Belgian chocolates and rules her fiefdom with an iron hand. Her survivor's rule is simple: "If things are good, everybody gets a little. If things are bad, mama eats first." But the crusty facade harbors a gentle heart. And it's the discovery of this hard-boiled character's great capacity to love for which some critics took Nottage to task.
"My response?" says the playwright briskly. "They have never been to Africa. They have never spent time with these women to understand that you can be brutalized and still find a way to heal. It was very important for me to be optimistic about that and still tell the truth." Nottage pauses.
"Maybe some people wanted a 'Blasted'-type play," she says heatedly, referring to Sarah Kane's unrelentingly grim wartime drama. "But I can tell you, that woman killed herself. And that's the difference between her and me!"
Nottage, who was named a MacArthur fellow in 2007, gets similarly exercised about the failure of her generation of playwrights to engage in the social and political issues of the day. She was reminded of that recently while watching a television interview with filmmaker Werner Herzog ("Fitzcarraldo"). "It sounds basic, but he said, 'Our job as artists is to literally keep our eyes open while everybody else's are shut,' " she recalls. "And we've fallen down very badly in the last couple of decades. We're in a really unique position to have a conversation with an audience. But we are not challenging them, not their morality, their religion, their politics, liberal or conservative. We are not shaking them to the core."
The flashes of anger and passion are not atypical. Most people who have worked with Nottage consider her a "warrior woman." Doug Aibel, artistic director of off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre, presented in 1995 the premiere of the playwright's controversial "Por'knockers." The drama, about domestic terrorists who bomb an FBI building and inadvertently kill schoolchildren, had the misfortune of a scheduled opening just after the Oklahoma City bombing. Aibel and Nottage forged ahead and were rewarded with what the playwright describes as "the most reviled" reception in the theater's history. "I think of Lynn as a 'Shavian writer,' someone who's not afraid to provoke debate," Aibel says. "She has brilliant theatrical instincts and an ability to explore issues of both politics and the heart."
Nottage hopes to continue to stir audiences out of their complacency with "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," a co-commission from South Coast Repertory and Baltimore's Center Stage. It sounds like she's having a lot of fun with it, given that its two main characters are "warrior women" making their way through 1930s Hollywood. The white starlet hopes to resuscitate her flailing career by nailing the Scarlett O'Hara-type role in an antebellum epic. Her maid sees her salvation in a supporting role in the film. "Vera's surprisingly strong," says Nottage of the African American character. "And sassy. But not in a 'Mammy'-type sassy way."
Nottage's brilliance has put her on the short list for the Pulitzer Prize this year, a position that she doesn't really want to talk about. "It's not helpful," she says with a laugh, adding that what she really wants is not a plaque but the attendance at "Ruined" of Michelle Obama and/or Oprah Winfrey. "I would like to see them take up the plight of women in the Congo as their special cause," she says. "That would be the prize."