BWW Reviews: Obsidian Art Space's RUINED is Thought Provoking
Lynn Nottage's RUINED was well received in New York City in 2009, and now it is making its Houston premiere in a production produced by Obsidian Art Space. A tautly constructed drama about the use of rape as a weapon in the Congolese Civil War, this fascinating and thought-provoking show is one that will leave Houston audiences with plenty to think about.
In Lynn Nottage's drama, the action takes place mostly within the front room of Mama Nadi's brothel. While the conflict may rage on outside of Mama Nadi's walls, within her business, there is no talk of the war. Instead, the mood is kept as light as possible, and the women work as sirens to keep the customers happy. Sophie, a "ruined" woman is sold to Mama Nadi, and becomes a singer in the bar. Over the course of the play, despite Mama Nadi's best efforts, the horrors of the civil war eke their way into her establishment, shaking up the hearts of those both on stage and in the audience.
Direction by Tom Stell keeps the characters front and center, as this play becomes more of a character study than a plot driven vehicle. In each successive scene, we see the layers of each character peeled back, allowing us to know them more and more deeply. This is what gives the production its strength and makes the performances of the cast haunting. By the time the climax is reached, we, as the audience, feel we know these women, making their reveals and internal and external turmoil all the more affective.
The women in the cast steal the show collectively. Qamara Black's Mama Nadi is a portrait of tough love and compassion, protecting her business, herself, and her girls no matter what it may cost her. Miatta Lebile's Sophie is consumed by constant and consummate pain. With the way she stands and moves about the stage, the audience cannot help but notice that every movement pains her because of what she has suffered. Despite this, she works hard for Mama Nadi and does her best to stand up for herself as well. As Salima, Uju Edoziem powerfully walks the line between melancholic understated silence and explosive rage and heartbreak, which serves to make her character's arc in the second act discomforting and gut wrenching for the audience. Teri Mills skillfully plays the hyper-sexualized Josephine, a daughter of a local chieftain. Arianna Day's Emily is a quiet girl doing whatever she must to stay alive.
Atseko Factor's Christian serves as a litmus strip for the psychological destruction of the Congolese Civil War. At the opening of the show, he is a man happy to be alive, despite the struggles the war causes him and his business. However, he eventually looses himself to depression and alcoholism because of the war. By the end of the play, he is recovering, but still pained by his breaking. Conversely, Wisam Ghuneim's Mr. Harari is a third party bystander who remains coolly unaffected by the war as long as it doesn't interrupt his business dealings. He is not a native of the Congo nor is hoping to be a citizen of the Congo; therefore, he has no ties to either side of the war and only looks out for what serves him the best.
Dave Shepard as Commander Osembenga, Daniel Ewetuya as Jerome Kisembe, Jarrod Tinsely as Fortune, John Ross as Simon, Matt Lorenzo as Government Solider/Miner/Aid/Rebel, and Wilson Daniels as Government Solider/Miner/Rebel, all do a strong job bringing to life the distinctly different sides of the Congolese Civil War, showcasing what is being fought over and how it is actually more lucrative to foreigners and developed countries to keep the ongoing conflict alive.
The only weakness this cast faces is the use of Africanized accents. At times their emotionality gets the best of them, and words and phrases get lost in an accent that renders the English and French languages indecipherable. When this does occur, enough is understood before and after the incomprehensible moments to get the gist of what was said.
Tom Stell's Scenic Design utilizes the intimacy of Obsidian Art Space to the pull the audience deeply into Lynn Nottage's gripping play and hold us enthralled. We feel as if we are flies on the wall or even non-participatory patrons in Mama Nadi's establishment.
Obsidian Art Space's production of RUINED is a strong entry for Houston's thriving theatre scene. The production suffers because of the accents. Also, I found myself wondering what the show could have been like if the budget for costuming, lighting, and sound design had been larger. Yet, these are just flourishes and trappings that can be applied to a production. The meat of the matter is the words and how they are conveyed, and there I have no qualms.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
RUINED, produced by Obsidian Art Space, runs at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak Drive, Houston, 77007 now through March 22, 2014. Performances are Thursdays, Friday, and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. with one Sunday Matinee at 2:00 p.m. on March 16. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.obsidianartspace.org or call (832) 889-7837.
Photos courtesy of Obsidian Art Space.
Atseko Factor as Christian & Qamara Black as Mama Nadi.
Qamara Black as Mama Nadi & Miatta Lebile as Sophie.
Miatta Lebile as Sophie & Uju Edoziem as Salima.
Qamara Black as Mama Nadi, Miatta Lebile as Sophie & Uju Edoziem as Salima.