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Finding light in the dark

The Mother Courage of war- and rape-torn Congo comes to the stage in 'Ruined'

Carla Duren (left) and Pascale Armand in Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined,’’ which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Carla Duren (left) and Pascale Armand in Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined,’’ which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama. (Kevin Berne)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / January 2, 2011

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Nelson Mandela was a prisoner, not a president, when Liesl Tommy and her family emigrated from South Africa to the United States in the mid-1980s. Riots against apartheid were raging in Cape Town, their hometown, and the white government had declared a state of emergency. Yet many people here were unaware of the turmoil, let alone of the laws that constrained nonwhites like the Tommys to a separate and not at all equal existence in South Africa.

“People didn’t know what apartheid was,’’ recalled Tommy, who had lived in the Boston area in the 1970s when her father was a Fulbright scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This time, the family settled in Newtonville, and she went to Newton North High School. “People didn’t know where South Africa was. People thought that Africa was one big country. People asked me questions like ‘What did you wear?’ ‘Did you live in a treehouse?’ Grown-ups, not just kids.’’

At first she was insulted, convinced they were ridiculing her. Then she realized they were serious, so she started making speeches about divestment from South Africa, a movement that was gaining traction around the world.

“The way I made sense of it was to just say, OK, there’s a hole in people’s knowledge and I’m gonna try to fill that hole. I’m not gonna judge. I’m just gonna try to do what I can do. And that really hasn’t stopped,’’ said Tommy, now a theater director whose work frequently has a political tinge, often specifically African. Her latest project, starting previews Friday at the Huntington Theatre Company, is “Ruined,’’ Lynn Nottage’s play about women in the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Loosely based on “Mother Courage and Her Children,’’ Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 play about the Thirty Years War, “Ruined’’ is set at Mama Nadi’s, a bar and brothel in a small mining town in eastern Congo. Like Mother Courage, Mama Nadi makes her living off all sides of a conflict whose damage is relentless and whose end seems never to come. But when Mother Courage frets about her ruin, she’s talking about her finances.

In Nottage’s play, the word refers to women’s bodies, their culture, their country.

New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof last month termed eastern Congo the “rape capital of the world,’’ and indeed the women who work for Mama Nadi (played at the Huntington by Tonye Patano, of Showtime’s “Weeds’’) have taken shelter with her because they have been raped and otherwise brutalized by warring men.

Their victimization a mark of shame on their families, they have been cast out of their villages, and they yearn for the lives they once led: Salima as the wife of a farmer and mother of an infant, Josephine as the daughter of a chief. The luminous Sophie, so sexually mutilated by militiamen that she is useless as a prostitute, at least still has contact with an uncle, who begged Mama Nadi to let her work in the bar.

The play “is about something horrific,’’ said Nottage, who traveled to Africa three times to research “Ruined,’’ interviewing refugee women from Congo, Sudan, and Somalia. Even in 2004, when she took the first of those trips, the war in Congo was officially over, but the fighting — much of it over precious minerals used to make cellphones and other electronic devices — has not stopped. Neither have the rapes, which Nottage called “an epidemic’’ in Congolese culture. Amnesty International, the human rights organization for which she worked for several years after graduating from the Yale School of Drama, estimates that 15,000 women were raped in Congo in 2009.

“I’m trying to put something onstage that fundamentally is very dark and repugnant and make it engaging and compelling for a theater audience,’’ Nottage said by phone from her home in Brooklyn. “I knew exactly what I didn’t want it to be. I didn’t want it to be sort of pedagogical, didactic agitprop. I didn’t want it to be the kind of theater where you come and you feel as though for two hours you’re being told, ‘Isn’t Congo a horrific place? These women need to have voices.’ I wanted people to have the experience of being invited into a culture they’d never been into, encounter these women, and then draw those conclusions without sort of being directed there.’’

Speaking about “Ruined,’’ Nottage was cautious, too, wary of playing into what she called the xenophobia and myopia of the American people. It’s a precarious balance to try to strike: showing audiences a part of the world disfigured by years of armed conflict, hoping they will understand that this is not all of Africa, or even all of Congo.

“I think that there’s a real fear, and in particular there’s a fear of Africa,’’ Nottage said, “because Africa for many still represents the great unknown, and I think that so many of the representations of Africa in the media remain extremely dark and paint a portrait of a dangerous place like the Old West, where there’s no law and order. Which is really far from the truth.’’

Tommy’s travels in eastern Africa have taken her to Uganda and Rwanda, both just over Congo’s eastern border, and to Kenya. Her understanding of what she called “the enormous diversity that is the continent of Africa’’ is part of what she brings to the storytelling of “Ruined,’’ she said.

Another element is her insistence on research and on immersing her cast in history, politics, and culture. They spent a day of rehearsal watching documentaries on the colonial history of Congo and the brutality inflicted on the country a century ago by Belgium’s King Leopold II. Under his rule, the populace was enslaved, women were raped if their husbands weren’t working hard enough, and soldiers were ordered to collect a severed hand for each bullet they fired in order to prove that they hadn’t wasted ammunition. Tommy also showed the company more recent news, like reports of mass rapes in eastern Congo last summer.

“By the end, the actors are pretty devastated emotionally,’’ said the director, who graduated from Trinity Rep Conservatory in Providence. “But I believe strongly that in order to tell the story with the depth and the passion that is required, their heart has to break a little — a lot, actually. And from that point is when you can really get the true performances that you need.’’

The play isn’t all harrowing psychological terrain. Nottage, who first came to know Congolese culture through art, music, and Négritude poetry, built humor, music, and dance into “Ruined.’’ Locating that equilibrium is part of the play’s balancing act as well.

“When you’re working with political theater, you have to find a way to make it entertaining, to make it joyous, to make it fun. And that’s definitely in the script that Lynn wrote,’’ said Tommy, who tries always to incorporate music into her productions. “It’s not just about the misery of war. It’s about the joy of living and surviving.’’

Tommy is a New Yorker these days, and her younger brother, Kurt Tommy, lives in Walpole and works for the Cambridge Housing Authority. But in the 1990s, after apartheid had ended and Mandela had become president, their father was asked to return to South Africa to work as a city planner in Cape Town. He accepted.

As Tommy spoke about “Ruined,’’ she was sitting in her parents’ rose garden in Cape Town, where she was visiting for the holidays.

“You know,’’ she said, “during the worst time of apartheid we couldn’t go anywhere, we couldn’t go to movies, we couldn’t go to restaurants. [When I was] a child I remember my parents and all of their friends Friday night after work packing up our cars and trucks and driving up the mountain and spending the weekend there camping and singing songs every night, and just really feeling free and unencumbered when that was just not our reality.’’

The ability to find “the joy in the tragedy,’’ Tommy said, is extremely African. That knowledge, she said, was something she could bring to the play: understanding how, in the midst of darkness, to breathe life into the small moments of beauty and light.

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

RUINED Presented by Huntington Theatre Company at Boston University Theatre, Friday through Feb. 6. Tickets: $25-$89, discounts for seniors and military, student rush $15. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org