When a country is ravaged by war, various organizations publish pictures to horrify the viewer enough to give a tax-deductible donation. Send a check or a monthly donation and get a letter from a child that you have “saved.” With a few extra dollars, you can assuage your guilt further by wearing the organization’s T-shirt and calling yourself a humanitarian. Ruined by Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage is a visceral and gripping drama that puts the hidden horrors of war on display. Invictus Theatre’s production of Ruined, directed by Ebby Offord, will take you on a journey of unspeakable violence now given a voice.
Ruined is the story of Mama Nadi’s bar, which offers drinks and “relief” for the various rebel factions, militias, and mercenaries that fought or profited from the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the ’90s. Tekeisha Yelton Hunter is brilliant as the entrepreneurial Mama Nadi. She reigns over the bar and brothel with a glare that goes from flirtatious and amused to machete-wielding and deadly. Mama Nadi’s is visited by Christian, a poetic salesman played by Stanley King with tremendous range and subtlety. Christian is the one source of near-normalcy in the midst of the hustlers and brutes who drink Mama Nadi’s diluted whiskey. King gives a heart-rending performance as a man who brings two women to Mama Nadi and offers her the bargain of two for one.
Salima played by Courtney Gardner is a farmer’s wife who has been shunned by her husband and community after being brutalized and gang-raped. Gardner gives a performance of anguish and rage that reveals more than the obvious scars on Salima’s body. Gardner projects a scarred soul who has lost all hope and pride. Her performance left me stunned and holding back tears as she unleashed what felt like the rage of every woman defiled and bearing the weight of family dishonor. She is accompanied by Sophie played by Jenise Sheppard in her debut professional performance. Sheppard is one to watch in the Chicago theater world. She comes from Gallery 37 and the venerable ETA Creative Arts Foundation–both Chicago arts institutions. Sophie is a ruined girl–meaning that she has been raped and mutilated by the roving militias.
Sophie is given the task of singing to entertain the customers. Sheppard has a gorgeous voice and sings with an African patois and full-throated sound. Her songs portray the trauma and rage of a mutilated woman. The lyrics are about enjoying life and relaxing but her face betrays the true purpose of Mama Nadi’s. Jemima Charles plays the seemingly lascivious Josephine. She is a favorite of the mercenary connections man–Mr. Harari–played by Javier Carmona. Charles gives the character of Josephine the hardness and edge needed to play the daughter of the village chief brought low. Josephine is deluded into thinking that Mr. Harari will take her away to a life of luxury. Harari is the lone white man and even sleazier version of Signor Ferrari in Casablanca (1942). Carmona plays the man who deals in blood diamonds and other black-market goods with a dissolute suaveness.
The actors portraying soldiers and miners do a stellar job of causing terror and uncertainty. These are the men who keep Mama Nadi in business and she accommodates them with her machete near at hand. Edward Neequaye as Osembenga looms over everyone. Neequaye embodies menace as a militia commander with a monstrous appetite for violence. Another standout is Tamarus Harvell as Salima’s husband. He is a vision of guilt and grief pushed into service. The cry in Harvell’s voice at having lost his farm and his family gives him humanity, and he is perhaps the only soldier with a conscience. Brandon Boler and Kejuan Darby are in perfect sync under Offord’s fine direction.
Offord keeps the action at a breakneck pace. The shadow of violence hangs over every scene and in each portrayal. A special shout out to dialect coach Ian R. Q. Slater in bringing authenticity to the voices and accents. As a Rogers Park denizen for most of my adult life, I was exposed to the African diaspora. They were my neighbors and coffeehouse customers. The lilting voices and phrasing are on point and deceptively comforting. Kevin Rolf’s set design looks like a tropical respite in the bar with the shades of blue particular to Haiti and parts of Africa. It is jarring when men with machine guns enter and place their ammo magazines on the bar under orders from Mama Nadi.
The Invictus ensemble does great justice to Lynn Nottage’s work. It is a production that may leave you changed in how you view so-called Third World countries. The ravages of colonialism and dictatorships have destroyed generations and resources that could offer a way out. Ruined looks behind the scenic atlas photos and National Geographic specials to see the human toll.
Ruined runs through March 20 at 1106 W. Thorndale. Tickets are $30, $25 for students (with a valid ID) and seniors. More details can be found at www.invictustheatre.com. A portion of the proceeds and donations will go to an organization working to help survivors of sexual violence and mutilation. Covid protocols are in place. Please bring your vaccination card, identification, and a mask. Protect the actors, the audience and yourself. Keep live theater living!
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