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Pulitzer-Winning "Ruined" Comes To The La Jolla Playhouse

Pulitzer-Winning "Ruined" Comes To The La Jolla Playhouse
The La Jolla Playhouse presents the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama RUINED. The play, set in Africa, tells the stories of men and women whose lives have been scarred by the degradation of civil war. We'll speak with the director of the Playhouse production, Liesl Tommy.

The La Jolla Playhouse presents the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama RUINED. The play, set in Africa, tells the stories of men and women whose lives have been scarred by the degradation of civil war.


Liesl Tommy, director of the play RUINED at the La Jolla playhouse


Jim Herbert, drama critic with the San Diego Union Tribune.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I am Maureen Cavanaugh and you are listening to These Days on KPBS. For most of us stories of conflict and Civil War on the African continent seem very far removed from our own lives. We don't really know where the war is located. We don't understand why the militias are fighting and we don't have any idea what can be done to stop it. Last year a play called Ruined opened off Broadway and brought with it some of the truth about war in Africa. It won a Pulitzer Prize for best drama for author Lynn Nottage. The La Jolla Playhouse is presenting its production of Ruined and I'd like to welcome my guest to talk more about the play. Liesl Tommy is directing Ruined. She's a well-known theater director in New York as well as regional theater. Liesl is a South African native and has directed Ruined once before in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Liesl Tommy, thank you and welcome to These Days .

LIESL TOMMY: Thank you so much for having me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Jim Prayer Is a San Diego Critic for the Union Tribune He Was on the Pulitzer Drama Jury That Awarded the Prize to Ruined and Jim Good Morning.


Good Morning, Maureen and thanks for having me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Liesl, I mentioned already that you staged this play already in Oregon. Does this play keep revealing itself the more time you spend at it?

LIESL TOMMY: Absolutely, when we work on a play... every time you work with the group of actors they find new depths of the play and definitely finding things that I didn't see before or just revealed itself in a different way. Can you give us a synopsis of the play?

LIESL TOMMY: Absolutely, it's about a small bar in the middle of the Tory Forest in eastern Congo and it's run by a very formidable African woman called Mama not be and it's about the men, soldiers, minors, rebels who traipse through the jungle and through the bar and Mama Nadi and the women who worked there who interact with them and it's just a small slice of what life in the middle of the war in Eastern Congo is like for these men and for these women.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what does the word the title of the play what does the word ruined mean?

LIESL TOMMY: I believe that ruined exists on a metaphorical level because no one, in terms of reality what has happened to so many of the women in that part of the world in terms of rape as a weapon of war is that that level of destruction to their body makes and considered rude. But in terms of the psychic damage that the war does to men and women, there is a kind of destruction that is also exported to play.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Jim Herbert, I mentioned in introducing new you were on the Pulitzer drama jury that awarded the prize to ruin the last year. What was your reaction to the play when you saw it in New York.

JIM HERBERT: Well I had read the script a couple of times and it just reading it you know it such a powerful piece of work even on the page. But seeing it come to life on the stage it was really pretty profound I have to say. And one thing I had a nice conversation with Liesl couple weeks ago about the play and one of phrase that sticks in my mind is she was saying the miracle of the play is the way that even though it does, it covers such really difficult territory, really difficult subject matter, that it really does have only a compelling story, but kind of a sense of hope that almost can't believe can be extracted from these events and I think that what I saw and read and even rereading it recently I think is what stuck with me most.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We saw the playwright the author of this play Lynn Nottage actually went to Africa to hear the stories of women who are caught up in conflict and the Civil War. Did you get a chance to talk to her about what that experience was like?

LIESL TOMMY: Absolutely she is someone I've known for a number of years and a neighbor in the gun to her house a couple times and we talked at length about her life and her travels there and my travels there and what she started sort of marinated upon after these interviews. And we kind of shared these and similar experiences that we had when we traveled and met with women. I was traveling in Uganda and Rwanda a few years back and doing research on women and HIV so I heard some pretty harrowing stories as well. You know and we just sort of shared thoughts about how you theatrical eyes people's real experiences.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That must be something.

LIESL TOMMY: It's very complex, yes

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And yet to make it accessible to people in the theater

LIESL TOMMY: Absolutely it's very complex because you want to honor the women in the stories, but you also want to, this is going to sound crazy, but you also want to make a piece of theater that will entertain and inspire and disturb. And you know, cause people to think and you know, so it's a very complex journey that she had to go on.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Lisle do you think Americans can easily identify with conflicts in Africa?

LIESL TOMMY: I don't think so. I think and I speak from experience. When I came to this country in the 80s, we left South Africa during the state of emergency and you know, and I was very aware of what was going on in my country. My father was you know, activist, and so many people I encountered had no idea what apartheid was. They had no idea what the conflict was about. And I found since then that most people, not just Americans, most people in the West, it just feels very confusing and overwhelming and people don't necessarily have a clear sense of time that Rwanda isn't still happening, the genocide is something that's many years past. That Somalia and Congo are, sometimes you feel like people think it's one great country.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Instead of a huge continent of many nations and many context conflicts. Yet the fact that this play is set in Africa set up an interesting dilemma for the Pulitzer jury, didn't it.

JIM HERBERT: Right. One of the guidelines for the Pulitzer in drama is that the play that wins the prize will preferably be set in the United States or have strong connection to American culture and I think when we as a jury, there are five members on the jury and it was unanimous really that we felt that although we read some amazing plays that this was the one we'd like to see win the prize. But we had to make a case for the idea that you know, here's the play that is certainly not set in America, and yet speaks so eloquently to international issues, issues that you know, with this being such a global international kind of era you know what really it is inescapable for all of us. And one thing that I also brought up was the fact that in so many cities around the country, San Diego included, there are refugees from wars in Africa and other places in their lives and experiences become the fabric of our lives here and the trauma that they've gone to resonate I think and so that was really the basis of the case we made and of course the board, to our gratitude agreed with that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are talking to Jim Herbert, theater critic for the San Diego Union Tribune and Liesl Tommy who is directing the play Ruined which previews tonight at the La Jolla Playhouse. I was interested Jim to learn that Ruined is loosely based on an old Berthold Brecht play, Mother Courage.

JIM HERBERT: Right, and you might, I don't know if we would say based so much as inspired by or it provided somewhat of a blueprint. I think my understanding and Lisle might know a little bit more about this but my understanding is Lynn Nottage set out to write much more of a close adaptation of mother courage and then after doing the research it became, for Mr. Baker to love this story because mother courage is you know a classic Brecht work, is about this and knee-jerk profits off of four even though it cost the lives of her children. So even though the loose kind of connection here is that mama Nadi, the central character in growing as this group of young women who I guess you could sort of say are her spiritual children who are going through these troubles. But it's not a direct adaptation, but it certainly has followed somewhat of a pattern of that war. Work.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Who plays Mama Nadi in the Playhouse production?

LIESL TOMMY: An incredible actress named Tonye Patano on who viewers might know from the TV show weeds and she came in and auditioned in New York and she didn't have to, because she's quite a well-known actress, but she really wanted to you know, get to know this project and we met and we spoke and I sort of fell in love with her, and she has all of the ingredients that you need for a great Mama Nadi She is incredibly strong and she has great humanity, compassion and a depth of understanding that is essential for this huge role.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So in your conception, Mama Nadi the woman who runs this brothel is a terrible person.

LIESL TOMMY: You can't think of any of the characters in the plays you direct as terrible people otherwise you're not going to be able to portray the full humanity of them. You have to look for their humanity. Their humanity, their weaknesses and their strengths.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well along the same lines someone might see this tragic circumstances of this play and where it is set and might expect a pretty grim night at the theater. And yet, there is that humanity, there is that even humor there.

LIESL TOMMY: Absolutely, it's saturated with joy and humor and that life force to survive is every single moment of the play, you see people giving everything to find a moment of happiness and to survive another day.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Jim Herbert I know that playwright Lynn Nottage to not give anything away about this play did get some criticism because there is a somewhat hopeful ending. Do you think the ending works?

JIM HERBERT: Yeah, that is kind of a tough thing to dance around because it really is such a pivotal moment. But, yeah, I think it not only works, but it just has such a profound emotional impact. Because I think you are so hoping that there is going to be some ray of light coming out of this play and as Liesl was saying all along there is a sense of joy and a sense of what hope these characters are trying so hard to extract from these difficult lives but to have that moment you know, I thought really did work and I know when I talked to her on the phone she talked about the fact that she'd gotten some flak over this, but I think she really couldn't care less. It was almost like she was saying she, even as she was writing it knew what their reaction would be and it almost made her want to do it more because she wanted to defy expectations and that's really what she's done.

LIESL TOMMY: Yeah and I think it's really one of the great parts of the play and I'm so glad that she did it because you know the idea that people who are in the midst of you know, war and violence can't make connections and can't have hope and can't feel happy is just not true. And you know I feel like sometimes there can be a little bit of Africa misery porn that happens.


LIESL TOMMY: And I think it may have made, I just think that it was so wise of her to avoid that cliché.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, I also want to talk just in a few minutes that we have left about what this play means to the people who are performing it because Jim Herbert, in your interview you recently wrote about a rehearsal that you saw for this production of Ruined and about these big switches of emotion that the trauma that it calls for and I want to ask you, Lisle, is this a grueling experience for the cast?

LIESL TOMMY: Yes its extremely grueling. It's emotionally devastating, you know, the research that we've all had to do. And I've pushed some pretty brutal research on them. You know, it's taxing and then the places that you have to go emotionally to tell the story honestly in terms of the women in the violence and the men and the violence because I've (inaudible) at them and really understand that some of them were probably child soldiers and what that meant and how they came to be who they are now in these characters. So it is, you know it's taxing but at the same time it's not as taxing as the people who are actually living this.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Exactly and to present it truthfully is something that we all want to see and we are going to appreciate. Thank you. I want to thank you both so much, Liesl Tommy, thank you for your time. I know you are very stressed for time. Thank you so much. I appreciate your coming in.

LIESL TOMMY: Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Jim Herbert, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.

JIM HERBERT: Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Jim Herbert theater critic for the San Diego Union Tribune and as you know Lisle Tommy is directing the play at the La Jolla Playhouse and I want everyone to know previews of Ruined begin tonight at the La Jolla Playhouse. The play runs at the Mandel Weiss theater on the campus of UCSD through December 19. If you'd like to comment please go online to Days. You've been listening to These Days on KPBS.