Joan Marcus
Melissa Rose Bernardo
February 27, 2009 AT 05:00 AM EST


Current Status
In Season
run date
Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Russell G. Jones, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Condola Rashad
Kate Whoriskey
Lynn Nottage

We gave it an A

Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, the off-Broadway production inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s classic Mother Courage, is an astonishment on many levels: It’s set more than 6,000 miles away in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, yet it seems immediate and relatable: That’s because Mama Nadi (Saidah Arrika Ekulona, ferocious and funny) makes everyone feel at home in her bar/brothel (she also makes everyone empty their weapons of ammunition). She may haggle with Christian (Russell Gebert Jones), the soft-hearted traveling salesman who brings her cigarettes, condoms, and prostitutes, but she nevertheless takes in the village women who have been so savagely abused by soldiers (she subsequently puts them to work entertaining those same soldiers). Ruined is also a fiercely political play that never proselytizes: We hear the staggering facts and figures about this civil war — nearly 5.5 million casualties, the most war deaths since World War II — but Nottage never chooses sides between Commander Osembenga (Kevin Mambo) and the leader of the rebel opposition, Jerome Kisembe (Chris Chalk). Neither does Mama — she can’t afford to. ”He pays me in gold, he pays me in Coltan [a valuable mineral]. What is worth more? You tell me,” she demands of her most loyal customer Mr. Harari (Tom Mardirosian). ”What is their argument? I don’t know. Who will win? Who cares?”

And yet for all of the ugliness and horror Nottage so vividly describes — wild-eyed 18-year-old Sophie (a quietly powerful Condola Rashad) was so badly abused that she walks with a pronounced limp, while young Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) was kidnapped, chained to a tree, and raped for five months — she also finds joy, beauty, and laughter in her characters’ lives. Mama Nadi and Christian banter flirtatiously amid the ever-present tacky twinkle lights and too-colorful furniture (Derek McLane designed the purposely rickety set). And like Brecht’s original Mother Courage, the show features live music — mostly sung by the sweet-voiced Rashad with backing from a guitarist and drummer. ”You come here to forget/You say drive away all regret,” she sings (Nottage wrote the lyrics to Dominic Kanza’s hypnotic tunes). ”Will the sound drown out your sorrow/So you’ll remember nothing tomorrow?” We promise: There’s no way you’ll forget Ruined tomorrow. A

(Tickets: or 212-581-1212)

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