RUINED: The Survivor & The Poet
From the Obie Award-winning author Lynn Nottage (Fabulation and Intimate Apparel) comes RUINED, "a haunting, probing work about the resilience of the human spirit during times of war"... and reportedly the front-runner for a Pulitzer nomination, now playing through May 10 at Manhattan Theatre Club
Set in a small mining town in the war-torn Congo, RUINED follows the everyday exploits of Mama Nadi (played expertly by Saidah Arrika Ekulona), a businesswoman doing whatever she can to ensure her survival... and the survival of the women she shelters.
Amidst the blood and lust is Christian (the deft Russell Gebert Jones), a poetic man who yearns for something truer than the senseless gun-shots and mindless profiteering.
Saidah and Russell sat-down with BroadwayWorld to discuss this eye-opening new play, the power of their ensemble, and just how far one must go to survive...
Eugene Lovendusky: You're African-American actors tackling some brutally real African characters. How did you approach them?
Russell Gebert Jones (Christian): As if they are human beings. As I would any other character... to figure out what the parameters are, what the situation is, what you're trying to get what the obstacles are, who the person is. Then you sprinkle on accent, gesture, vocabulary, the actual situation and what things mean. I think it's kind of a trap to come at your character from the title of your character.
Saidah Arrika Ekulona (Mama Nadi): I completely agree. The fact is: Yes, I'm African-American. But I'm also human. We have a lot of similar experiences, even if one has never been on the continent of Africa before. You're a human being. You want love. You want protection. You want to be able to trust somebody.
Eugene: Lynn Nottage has written a heavily African story, yet a lot of people in New York don't necessarily know what's going on in the Congo. We may see stories on CNN and it's sad, so we change the channel. Why do people need to know about what's going on in the Congo? What does that mean for them?
Saidah: The war in the Congo has been going on for years and years - and it actually does affect all of us. Colton is a mineral that's being used in all of our portable electronics, so in a way we are contributing to what's going on over there. Even though this is set in the Congo, it could be here. It's actually much more of a universal story than people may initially think.
Russell: I've heard it several times before... "Art is all in the details." The more specific you get, the more universal it becomes. Lynn has really knocked it open! The play is just gorgeous. Without being too egotistical, our cast is really bananas! It's what you would want to aspire to... the collaboration aspect of theatre.
Saidah: Kate Whoriskey, our director, has really done an outstanding job in very quietly letting us know, as a cast, how we are a true ensemble and we have to back each other up, in order to tell the story, and to tell it right. It kind of happened naturally.
Russell: We do also feel a responsibility to do service to the script and to the fact that it is happening now, to real people. We kind of all have assumed the goal of truthfulness.
Eugene: You have a very female-centric creation here... Kate, Lynn and Mama's story. What's it like telling a greatly feminine tale?
Saidah: It's wonderful. It's wonderful for a woman's perspective to not be pushed aside. The men in the show are just as important as the women, even though it's mostly a woman's story.
Russell: I kind of feel bad for the male members of the ensemble because audience members have been moved after the show, and still have a residual feeling of not wanting to like you... Sometimes when we do talk-backs, an audience member asks: "What's it like to portray all of this violence on-stage?" I think that really speaks to how much work is involved for the males in the show.
Saidah: Everybody in the Congo is ruined. Everyone is affected by this war. What's going on physically with the women in this play takes central focus. But some of these men are the same - they didn't want to be a soldier. They were a farmer, and then a gun was thrust in their hands. There are some situations when the men have had to watch their wives or their mothers be raped and then they are forced to join the rebel gangs or the government soldiers.
Eugene: Farmer is Soldier. Africa is World. Woman is Everyone. These themes are not hard to pick-up on but are so essential...
Russell: Yes, it's kind of hard to say that this is the telling of a woman's story, because it's more holistic than that. It's not a "this" story or a "that" story, because you need the inverse in order to define it.
Eugene: Russell, when you are portraying a character surrounded by such violent acts performed by Man - just for the fact that you are a man - do you take on any guilt for mankind?
Russell: [pause] I don't take on any guilt. I think at times in my life I would have. I was talking to my mother, who saw the play, and she touched on this. "How do you keep going into these places without carrying the residual with you?" That may just be a skill one has to have in their actor-bag. One has to delve into it, and then leave it there. The same goes for the guilt of portraying violence on-stage. It's too much to take with me. Equality Now visited the other day, a group dealing with worldwide women's and girl's issues. Christine Lahti was there and she told me: "Thank goodness you're character is in the play. Manhood's good things rest on your shoulders!" And I thought: "Wow, I cannot take that on!" I have to compartmentalize. I am just this guy trying to get this one thing accomplished.
Saidah: Those interpretations expand and change over time. Every actor must find a way to leave it behind. Now I'm curious how you all leave it behind. It stays with you.
Russell: I think the guilt question might resonate more if it was like: "Do you feel guilty as an American? Do you feel guilty as someone with a cell-phone or a computer? Do you feel guilty as part of the colonizers?" If you trace the root of all these issues of most of the countries in Africa, it's the direct result of being a colonization. Whoever gets the power and controls the natural resources - and that changes every two weeks - they know the only way to keep it is to kill a bunch of people so that the other are too scared to do anything about it. If there's guilt to be had, there's guilt to be had for a lot of us!
Eugene: How did you each get involved with this play at The Goodman, and what's it like working with Lynn and Kate?
Saidah: I got involved four days before we started rehearsals. [laughs] I had worked with them about five years ago; we're friends, and I knew Lynn was writing a new play. It's been incredible. I feel like we've all grown as artists. It's been great. It's been a defining moment in my career - seriously - I feel like this is the right time for me to play this role. I'm just terribly grateful.
Russell: I've been with it since workshops; the first was at the intensive at the LABrynth. History should also point-out that Kate and I had a theatre company 15 years ago, when I first moved to New York! So it's weird, because it's sort of a touchstone but also an eerily accurate measuring tape for my growth as an artist.
Eugene: Mama Nadi makes it very clear she doesn't want violence in her shop - check your guns at the door. But it's almost impossible to avoid conflict here. What is Mama fighting for?
Saidah: Survival. For herself and for her girls. It's within her spirit - she is going to survive. With her history and everything she's been through? No, no, no, they are not going to take advantage of her. She's going to say you're going to do what I want in order to get what you want. She manipulates, she charms, she bullies, she will sabotage relationships to help her survive. And to help these other women survive, she feeds them and houses them, but they have to do their services so she can get the money and survive.
Eugene: In Act 2, Christian has his "mental/verbiage break-down," where he overflows with his emotions and how angry and confused he is with the entire situation. Christian is an educated man, he's a business man, he's a man in yearning. How do all of these factors end-up clashing together?
Russell: Because Christian has experienced life outside the Congo, he has a different world-view. I think once people see another way to live, that becomes part of your logic. The fact that other people don't see that as an option is just completely illogical to him. Another aspect is that Christian believes that his heart is the true guide. He is at-odds with himself. He's a very logical person and at the same time, he thinks poetry should be spoken as conversation. You should be able to look at me, recognize the love I have for you, and let everything else be a situation and not an obstacle. Mama Nadi is fighting for survival. Survival is job one for these people. That, on top of inner-conflict, is what makes all of these characters so compelling.
Eugene: Now, I have another very important question. It was on my mind all night. Those costumes! Are you going to be lending them out afterward?
Saidah: [laughs] No, I'm not giving them away - they look too good on me!
Eugene: Every scene, you have a new one on! They're gorgeous!
Saidah: Thank you. Yes, Paul [Tazewell, costume designer] did a great job.
Russell: All of the designers are bananas. Every one of them! I see the rain-effect, I hear a gun-shot, the trees on the set, the costumes. The music!
Saidah: They're queens. We keep one another afloat.
Russell: You can speak of the beauty and integrity and talent of these women as actresses, but also just as people. It's uncanny - and I need to include the men in the cast as well - that we have such unabashed love for each other. It takes a spectacular human being in order to co-create and exist in that world. And that's what we got.
"RUINED takes us inside an unthinkable reality and into the heads of victims and perpetrators to create a full-immersion drama of shocking complexity and moral ambiguity" - Variety
Manhattan Theatre Club presents RUINED, by Lynn Nottage and directed by Kate Whoriskey. A world-premiere co-production with the Goodman Theatre, through May 10, 2009. For tickets and information visit www.MTC-NYC.org
Photos (top-bottom) by Joan Marcus, 2009: Saidah Arrika Ekulona and Russell Gebert Jones; Saidah Arrika Ekulona and Quincy Tyler Bernstine; Saidah Arrika Ekulona and Russell Gebert Jones; Condola Rashad, Cherise Boothe and Quincy Tyler Bernstine.
From This Author Eugene Lovendusky