Director Troy M. Apostol's Master of Fine Arts thesis presentation at the Kennedy Theatre is rather timely. His bold choice of playwright Lynn Nottage's "Ruined" echoes our current world at large. Violence against women is a loud drum that beats from ISIL of the new caliphate to the Boko Haram of Nigeria to the NFL of our United States. In some cultures, rape is not only feared, it is expected. Sometimes rape is considered lucky, the lesser of greater evils, indignities and inhumanities.
Actress Lillian Jones plays Mama Nadi owner of a brothel and bar in a small mining town in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As a businesswoman, her political allegiances shift with her customers, the government forces or the guerilla rebels who are fighting them. The play begins when Mama Nadi's old friend and provisor Christian (Quantae Love) arrives with another supply of liquor, lipstick and girls. The two new recruits, Sophie (Denali Lukacinsky) and Salima (Alexis Harvey), unpack their histories of a harsh village life. Sophie has been forever "ruined" by a violent sexual assault and must live as a pariah. Cast out of her family, Salima has yet to recover from the brutality of her term as a sex slave to rebel soldiers. The girls are frequently reminded that their life in the brothel is far better than survival in a refugee camp or the African bush. As the mining operation increases, the rebel war escalates and Mama Nadi must scratch for survival.
Troy M. Apostol, the University of Hawai'i, Manoa grad student, has tackled creative and logistical issues that only an experienced vet might attempt. And he has succeeded. Africa's Congo, where the play is set, is far from an American mindset. Apostol chose a literal approach and his local actors have to contend with a linguistic flavor that is alien to us in the Western world. Often times the African accent and vernacular garbles the message and meaning. As a Master's thesis, "Ruined" presents only five performances, a lot of work for a small run. Apostol's "Ruined" is worth seeing. And hearing. And feeling.
"Ruined" writer Lynn Nottage won a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Theater is a funny, oddly generous medium. We respect the efforts of the actors on a stage and we forgive. Nottage is not a clever or subtle dramatist. As agitprop, she has merely illuminated a universal issue with actors on a stage. The plague of violence against women is given a checklist and Nottage checks off every indignity and horror in a rather perfunctory manner. There is no subtlety or style, yet the opening night audience and this critic were greatly moved. The characters are broadly drawn, much like a graphic novel. The subtle reveal is a loud shout. Nonetheless, the horrors are made so personal, we become invested into the dystopia of the Congo.
The cast of "Ruined" was agile and energetic with a stand out performance by Susan Veney as prostitute Josephina. Leads Lillian M. Jones and Quantae Love took advantage of their opportunity, as their parts were the most developed, giving them something to work with. Most roles served as background until each got their moment. Alexis Harvey as Salima exploded with passion in her two big scenes describing the horrors of her life. Denali Lukacinsky, as ruined Sophie, was not given much to do; a shame because the actress clearly has talent and a beautiful singing voice. As a diamond trader and opportunist, Neal Milner in the role of Harari was finally given a very pithy speech on the nature of humanity that the playwright unfortunately rushed through and essentially tossed away. One actor, Q, stole the stage every time he entered the room. He seemed to be stifling a Matthew McConaughey grin, gleeful in the broad role of Commander Osembenga. The boom of his voice could be heard in Maui.
The great value of "Ruined" is the personalization of a large headline issue. In the theater, we must sit, understand and contemplate the true horror of sexualized violence. In the theater, we are unable to turn the page or change the channel.
Tickets for "Ruined" are available online at etickethawaii.com, by phone at (808) 944-2697, at participating outlets, and at the Kennedy Theatre box office; the box office is open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday, with extended hours on performance dates. Prices are $18 for general admission; $16 for seniors / military / UH faculty and staff; $13 for students; and $8 for UHM students with a validated Fall 2014 UHM photo ID. Ticket prices include all service fees. For further information, please visit hawaii.edu/kennedy, or call the theatre at (808) 956-7655. For disability access, please call the theatre.
Gordy Grundy is a Honolulu based artist and arts writer. As a producer and publicist for the Cast Theater in Los Angeles, he has been involved with over a hundred productions. His visual and literary work can be found at www.GordyGrundy.com