Mama Nadi runs a brothel. It is a safe house where women are protected from the mindless rape and violence of the outside world, but ironically, still are forced to degrade themselves for life’s essentials.
“Ruined,” a play written by Lynn Nottage, is based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country torn apart by civil war. Nottage, whose play debuted in 2008 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2009, visited the College of William and Mary on Sept. 29 to speak to students and give them just a tiny glimpse of her personality and creative process. William and Mary Theater will be presenting “Ruined” this April 19-21.
Nottage’s visit began with an unscripted and very intimate group conversation. Students and staff alike respectfully crowded around her, obviously pleased to hear her speak about the play, which many in attendance had read recently. Questions posed ranged from direct queries on the play’s mysterious symbolism to the author’s inspirations.
“Many came to the event prepared with scripts in hand and posed intelligent questions and I appreciated that very much,” Artisia Green, assistant professor of theater and the director of the College’s upcoming production of “Ruined,” said. “This intimate conversation with Lynn was somewhat equivalent to a networking event. It is important that students know who’s in the same room with them and are prepared to interact with give-and-take, not simply absorb. It was, after all, a conversation.”
Nottage drew comparisons between plays and different types of architecture: One play may be a Gothic Cathedral and the next may be an all-glass high-rise, but all are towering and meaningful. This philosophy on variety suits her — she stated that her next play is a fast-paced, screwball comedy.
“I am not a follower of hard-and-fast rules,” Nottage said.
Nottage’s range of writing interests is limited to theater, however. When writing, she said that her mind sees
a stage, and when she dreams of a character, he or she becomes the focus of the story, as opposed to the background.
“I just want to get them talking,” Nottage said with a laugh.
After answering questions, Nottage kept her audience spellbound for 20 minutes as she discussed on her research for “Ruined” and her life before critical acclaim.
“Her speech gave me the chills,” Marvin Shelton ’15 said.
To gather material for her play, Nottage traveled to the Congo to interview Congolese women who were
victims of unspeakable sexual violence.
“I want people to connect with the headlines, to see a living breathing human being,” Nottage said.
Nottage also addressed the naysayers of the stage. Constantly criticized for choosing to pursue a dying art form, but she fiercely persevered, because she knew she had the talent and the fire to defend her intellect.
“Theater allows uncensored dialogue between audience and artist,” Nottage said proudly.
Nottage also paid homage to Phillis Wheatley, the first African American woman to have her writings published. She obviously was inspired by Wheatley’s ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable racism and sexism.
“She had to defend her right to exist,” Nottage said.
Despite her fierce attitude of independence and an obvious sorrow for the sufferings of her fellow humans, Nottage’s work is filled with an underlying sense of optimism.
“I believe her optimism and strength were typical of the portraits she paints in most of her female characters, the ones in “Ruined” especially,” said Green. “She made it very clear that the women she interviewed opened their worlds to her and exposed levels of pain that were unbearable to hear. Afterwards they would gather, share a meal, and laugh. They go on.”
After her prepared keynote, the audience once again had an opportunity to ask questions of Nottage regarding her experiences and works.
Many in attendance are current theater students, who undoubtedly will want to pursue roles in the College’s upcoming production.
“I think that Nottage’s answers to the audience’s questions about “Ruined” gave them some great ideas on how to form character traits, sets and costumes,” said Shelton.
Speaking with Nottage will help Green prepare for the production of the play later this year.
“In preparation for the production, the cast and design team will consult a variety of secondary sources to help provide a contextual framework for potential artistic choices,” Green said. “When presented with the opportunity to engage with the playwright, ¬ a primary source material, these artists have access to a particular kind of truth that is inaccessible via typical modes of production research. My private conversation with her enormously impacted how I plan to execute my vision for “Ruined.””
This event was put on through the efforts of the Center for Student Diversity and William and Mary Theater.