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Arts & Culture

'Ruined' Is The Play To See This Season

(l-r) Tonye Patano as "Mama Nadi," Carla Duren as "Sophie" and Oberon K.A. Adjepong as "Christian" in La Jolla Playhouse’s production of RUINED. photo by Kevin Berne.
(l-r) Tonye Patano as "Mama Nadi," Carla Duren as "Sophie" and Oberon K.A. Adjepong as "Christian" in La Jolla Playhouse’s production of RUINED. photo by Kevin Berne.

The first thing you should know about "Ruined" is that it's not a holiday play, which sets it apart from what's currently on the majority of stages in San Diego. If you staunchly adhere to "Tis the season…," this is not the play for you.

To which I say, shelve your holiday cheer for one night and go see "Ruined." It's an important play and it gets a top-notch production at the La Jolla Playhouse (LJP), where it runs through December 19th. Kudos to the LJP for offering such relevant, profound fare, and for once again going against the holiday grain.

Seeing "Ruined" is an extraordinarily rewarding experience at the theater, which is not to say it's an easy one. It incites anger, sadness, despair, hope, and laughter in the course of two hours. There were moments that shattered me, and others of surprising joy.


"Ruined" opened off-Broadway in 2009, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (as well as many other awards). I wanted to read the script immediately after to see how playwright Lynn Nottage achieved the richness in character, pacing, and exposition about a very complicated war (the ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, acknowledged to be the deadliest world conflict since World War II). Plus, it's just beautifully written.

"Ruined" is set in a bar/brothel in the Eastern Congo, run by a formidable woman named Mama Nadi, played in the LJP production by Tonye Patano. Readers might remember Patano from her television role as Heylia James, a pot supplier to the drug-dealing protagonist in the Showtime series "Weeds." This was back before "Weeds" jumped the shark. In fact, Patano was one of the best things about "Weeds."

Mama Nadi is not unlike Heylia James. She shares the same no-nonsense demeanor, practicality, and tough exterior. She feeds and houses a group of women who in turn work for her, including servicing the men and soldiers in the region.

"Ruined" is about the female experience of war, which often goes unreported. In fact, playwright Nottage went to the Congo to document the experiences of women precisely because she wondered what was happening to them during the long war.

And what was happening is unfathomable. The title "Ruined" refers to what happens to a woman's body when she's been raped multiple times. One after another, we hear how war has been waged on the bodies of women. The most powerful – and lyrical – monologue comes from the character of Salima, played by Pascale Armand, who endured five months of captivity by rebel soldiers only to escape and be shunned by her family and village. I can't shake her story.


"Ruined" may refer to a physical state, but it also illustrates a lasting psychological trauma, which we witness in the play's monologues and relationships.

As grim as all of this sounds, "Ruined" is full of joyous moments. Those moments have the urgency of people needing escape from the horrors of war. There is dancing (some incredible, energized scenes), song, and A LOT of humor. Nottage writes about "Ruined:" "My play is not about victims, but survivors."

The LJP production is directed by native South African Liesl Tommy, who we recently had on These Days. She talked about her staging of the play, which I found excellent. And the performances are terrific across the board. For me, Tonye Patano (Mama Nadi) and Oberon K.A. Adjerpong (who plays Christian, a supplier/salesman to Mama Nadi's) steal the show.

"Ruined" is the best play I've seen in San Diego this year. I've noticed San Diegans tweeting about it – many of whom recommend bringing tissue. It's true, there were some tears in the audience this past Saturday night. But the play manages to discover hope, resilience, and lyricism among the ruined.

Have any Culture Lust readers already seen "Ruined?" If so, what did you think of it? I'd love to hear from you.