BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
SARASOTA — "Sophie is . . .''
So goes the pivotal exchange in the opening scene of Ruined, Lynn Nottage's play set in an African whorehouse. A traveling salesman named Christian has sold a pair of young women to the madam, Mama Nadi, who is trying to get out of the deal.
"You brought me a girl that's ruined?'' Mama, enraged, says. "A girl like this is bad luck. I can't have it. . . . I don't have room for another broken girl.''
Ruined is that rare thing, a play that takes on the cataclysmic humanitarian emergencies of Africa, in this case, the decade-long civil war in Congo. Though only vaguely known by most Americans, the deadly conflict has produced an estimated 5 million casualties — more than the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Darfur combined.
Nottage focuses on the war's toll on women through systematic rape and sexual abuse. Sophie was "ruined'' when she was raped by bayonet, leaving her genitals mutilated. She has been rejected by her family and village.
Much of the subject matter of Ruined sounds grim — and it certainly is — but the rough beauty of the play is how Nottage manages to get across her disturbing points while also crafting an engrossing international political drama. In many ways, it is in the same league as stories by Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene, though with a contemporary feminist perspective. The playwright has said she was inspired by Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children.
And the war in Congo is deeply relevant to the comfortable audiences who will see Nottage's play. In large measure, it is being waged over the country's rich lode of minerals such as coltan, vital to the manufacture of cell phones, laptops and other electronics.
Richard Hopkins, the artistic director of Florida Studio Theatre, directed Ruined, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama and is being given its Southeast premiere here. He has done it full justice, with a superb cast and a pair of expert musicians (Kelvyn Bell, guitar, and Julian Christian, drums) to play the Afro-pop so integral to the play.
Mama, who has the proverbial heart of gold in a passionate performance by Alice M. Gatling, is eventually persuaded by the poetry-spouting Christian (the excellent Stanley Wayne Mathis) to take in Sophie, who has a good voice and a knack for numbers. Played with a nice mix of innocence and pluck by Bianca Sams, she becomes Mama's Sade-like singer in the whorehouse lounge, and does the boss lady's bookkeeping.
Scenic designer Bob Phillips did a great job with the set. Most of the action takes place in the lounge, an atmospheric assemblage of bar stocked with Primus beer, battered pool table, bird cage, tables and chairs, framed by thatched roof and tropical foliage. From time to time, the set shifts to reveal one of the prostitute's humble quarters, furnished with a cot and a wall covered with pictures cut from fashion magazines.
Mama's clientele are miners and either government or rebel soldiers. It can be a bit hard to distinguish government soldier from rebel — sometimes they sport red or yellow kerchiefs — but that also seems to be the point, that no matter which side they are on, these men are all implicated in the atrocities. The air of swaggering menace and barely restrained mayhem can be almost overwhelming on FST's small stage.
The tension is unbearable whenever commander Osembenga enters, "a pompous peacock of a man'' (Nottage writes in stage directions) in green track suit, black beret and dark glasses, wearing a pistol in a harness. As played by Lawrence Evans, he is one scary guy.
The single white actor in the 11-person cast is Ron Siebert, who plays the bearded Mr. Harari, a diamond dealer. He makes his first appearance in the bar barefoot, his shoes having been stolen, an oddly persuasive touch. He has a debauched relationship with Mama's top girl, Josephine (Ashley Bryant).
Ruined reaches its dark bottom in Act 2 when Stephanie Weeks, playing Salima, a damaged young woman from the bush, has a heart-wrenching scene with Sophie, recalling the morning of her abduction and rape and the murder of her baby by soldiers.
"How can men be this way?'' Salima laments. "How did I get in the middle of their fight?''
Nottage ends her play with a romantic, even optimistic encounter between Mama and Christian that seems to be at odds with the dire events that have come before, but the lapse into sentimentality is believable enough. More important, the little world she has created in Mama's whorehouse will stay with you for a long time.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs. tampabay.com/arts.