at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
written by Lynn Nottage
This horror story opens with the audience being dropped into the middle of the ongoing uncivil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mama Nadi (Kimberly Scott) is the wheeling, dealing savior madame and bar owner who, in the opening scene, is convinced by a trader to take on two new girls.
There are 10 girls who work for Mama (only three appear as characters). All have been victims of political gang rape by soldiers who know that their physical victims will then be cast out of their families because of their forced degradation. It’s true evil committed by young soldiers who are living in a land of war-induced cultural perversion.
The ugliness of humanity is fully, graphically, slowly, and rawly explored in the relentlessly uncomfortable script for which Nottage won last year’s Pulitzer Prize. Child-like brutal rebel soldiers switch off with young, clear-headed brutal government soldiers as customers in Mama’s place. Each man who wanders into the bar exposes his own profaneness, bravado-camouflaged damage, and desperation for a place to fit in.
Each character’s psychological vulnerability is uncovered, exploited, and left unattended. In turn, nearly every actor on stage is exposed, hurt, and made a victim of the war which has ended civilization.
The skill of the acting cast keeps the unrelieved awfulness watchable. The leads are Mama and the trader Christian (Tyrone Wilson), and they are magnificent.
Mama switches on the sex, turns on the charm, gets flinty and bossy, nurtures, and then returns to brutal pragmatism flawlessly. Kimberly Scott isn’t acting, she is reliving a nightmare each production. I cannot imagine a stronger presentation of this central character. Nor, can I imagine what conjuring brashness followed by fear followed by tenderness followed by stoicism must take emotionally.
Wilson’s character gives the longest look on stage at a man yearning for normalcy. This impossible quest is the pervasive motivation of all but the soldier leaders, and Christian’s round-trip through hell is a powerful ride for the audience. Wilson is exactly correct in each scene, experiencing the current twist or turn without telegraphing future changes or revelations.
The story is focused on the girls, and the actors who play them are satisfying apt. Salima (Chinasa Ogbuagu) and Sophie (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) are the two newcomers to the bar with whom we bond most closely. They are played with straight-forward matureness and realism. Ogbuagu in particular carries off scenes of remembrance with chilling simplicity. Josephine (Victoria Ward) plays a veteran worker who scares us with her youthfully innocent immature goals which she flaunts like the teenager she is.
Government and rebel soldiers carouse through the set with hair-triggers on their violence and a mortally important need to be obeyed and respected as the saviors of the region. Each militia blames atrocities and murders on the other. The government commander, Osembenga (Kenajuan Bentley), is murderously smart, cold, and detached. The rebel leader, Jerome Kisembe (Jimonn Cole), is mystically hot headed. Together they are two sides of the same coin of pointless, relentless, scorched-earth war. Their sexual urgency is part of their foreshortened life, but this pop psychology does not make them less dangerous or more appealing. Bentley and Cole present very different persons who are yoked together in the work of destroying their country. They’re suburb bookends on the shelf of depravity.
The white trader Mr. Harari (Armando Duran) adds breadth to the situation’s madness, illustrating how even people without historical animosities taint themselves. Duran’s impeccable coolness and self-saving logical decisions flow in sync with the impossible moral sewage of the Congolese war.
Fortune (Peter Macon) lights the final on-stage explosion with an appropriate, controlled act. Macon is powerful, brutal, and also restrained in carrying out his devastation. Nottage didn’t need to provide the name cue; Macon is a strong enough actor to let us understand his purpose.
Overall, this is a brilliantly acted piece of outright awfulness. Nottage is at her best during the quiet moments of horror when the unimaginable scope of pain shows specific, bite-size crushings of the body and spirit.
There are nits to pick with both the production and the play. The smallest is OSF’s decision to stage the play avenue-style with the action in the football field middle between the two sides of the audience. The set was designed with high platforms on one of end zones which gradually terrace down to stage level. The nearer you sat to the plateau goal line the more your sightlines of the down-field action was compromised. The platforms seemed unnecessary to begin, and at the very least Scenic Designer Clint Ramos or Director Liesl Tommy should have made adjustments to frame the action so that it was visible everywhere.
A more substantial misgiving concerns the selection and treatment of the play’s subject. At the beginning of the play the magnitude of the real-life crisis which formed the plot estranged me and kept me from being drawn into the moment. The introduction to the characters and story was a deliberate dip into boiling water. It took me a while to un-recoil and start caring.
With such a sweeping and life-or-death storyline, I felt a bit unclean. My nagging feeling was that Nottage and her audience were also working an angle on the war, using the horror of the war for their own dramatic benefit.
The play won last year’s Pulitzer and many other awards. It deserves high praise. However, for me it earns the accolades most for its quieter stories and exploration of the characters. There are many of these vignettes. The real strength of the production is in these vignettes. Those revelatory moments tell a more powerful story than the atrocity roll calls in the dialog. Those felt lecturing and manipulating, and not in sync with the best moments of this powerful work of art.