Katori Hall has good lines. Hall's the playwright behind Hurt Village and Hoodoo Love. She won an Olivier for The Mountaintop, which ran on Broadway with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett in leading roles. She's also the newly appointed artistic director for the Hattiloo Theatre. "I bleed barbecue sauce," she said last Friday, stressing her Memphis bona fides and enchanting a near-capacity crowd of invited guests come to welcome her to the new gig. It was a homecoming of sorts for the Craigmont grad (and Columbia, and Harvard) who regards Lynn Nottage as her mentor and whose latest play Pussy Valley is being developed as a streaming series for STARZ.
Friday's opening night performance of Nottage's Pulitzer-winning drama Ruined was preceded by a reception celebrating Hall's arrival and the announcement of a new vision for the Hattiloo. Together with the company's founder, Ekundayo Bandele, Hall wants to transform the Overton Square playhouse into a small professional company with a national reputation for developing actors and fostering emerging writers.
Ruined is a strong opener and evidence of what the ambitious but inconsistent Hattiloo is capable of. Under the direction of Shondrika Moss-Bouldin, it's the most satisfying, fully realized thing the company's done since Tony Horne's vividly imagined production of Marcus Gardley's The House That Will Not Stand last season. When Nottage's Congolese Civil War drama is on, it's on fire.
Set in Mama Nadi's bar in a bleeding and brutalized mining town in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ruined borrows knowingly and well from shows like Cabaret and Mother Courage and Her Children. Mama is a businesswoman selling cigarettes, whiskey, and other goods and comforts to the soldiers, militiamen, miners, and dealers on all sides of a shapeshifting conflict. She buys other kinds of merchandise, too — rescuing two women, Sophie and Salima, from sexual torture that scars them physically and wrecks them socially. She rescues them and puts them to work entertaining soldiers indistinguishable from the ones who ruined them.
Mama's protection is a mixed blessing that comes at a price for women still coping with sexual trauma, particularly for Sophie, who becomes a popular singer at the bar, with a head for business and petty larceny. But touchy, insistent soldiers cause panic and paralysis, putting her on a collision course with Mama's business side. She will ultimately fare better than Salima who arrives with a secret she knows she can't keep hidden.
Ruined starkly considers the rape and the sexual mutilation of women as weapons and tactics of war. These nightmares are brought to vivid life by 2017 Ostrander nominee Jessica "Jai" Johnson and Kiah Clements as Salima and Sophie.
As Mama, Maya Robinson leans heavily on strong comedy chops. The humor softens Mama's hard edges but not too much. It's a rich performance, and her scenes with Bertram Williams Jr. — a supplier and would-be romantic interest — keep hope alive in a violent place. Williams, it should be noted, has been performing with Hattiloo since the beginning and has transitioned from serviceable leading man to commanding presence who gets better with each new role.
Americans are isolated, largely untraveled, and tend to think of foreign conflicts as somebody else's problem. But globalism means the violence is usually closer than you think. When you watch a production of Ruined, you've got to know that the modern technology everybody enjoys has funded war in the Congo. Cell phones funded it. Laptop computers funded it. Video game consoles funded it. That's not what the show is about, but the brutality has context. Coltan, the rare mineral found in abundance in the Congo and used as currency in Ruined, is that context. Recommended.