Excerpt from the play, "Ruined"
Mama Nadi: How old are you?
Mama Nadi: Do you have a beau?
Mama Nadi: Are you a student?
Sophie: Yes, I was to sit for the University exam.
Mama Nadi: I bet you are g ood at your studies. Am I right?
Mama Nadi: A petty bureaucratic ... Did they hurt you badly?
Mama Nadi: I bet they did. Do you know what kind of place this is?
Sophie: Yes Mama, I think so.
Mama Nadi: Good. Then we have no problems. I expect my girls to be well-behaved and clean. That's all. I provide a bed, food and clothing. If things are good, everyone gets a little. If things are bad then Mama eats first. Am I making myself clear? Good.
Jo Reed: That was Jenny Jules as Mama Nadi and Rachael Holmes as Sophie in Arena Stage's current production of Lynn Nottage's play, "Ruined" which is directed by Charles Randolph-Wright.
Welcome to Art Works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
The 2009 Pulitzer Prize play "Ruined" tells the story of Mama Nadi and her establishment. Lynn Nottage loosely based it on Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage, and her Children" but moved the action to the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Mama Nadi provides a refuge of sorts for a handful of women, most of whom had been gang-raped for months by soldiers and then rejected by their families. That the refuge is a brothel and that Mama Nadi is a madame both protecting and using her girls underscores the complexity of the situation in which these women find themselves. Prostitution is one of the few alternatives open to them. Although in the case of Sophie, she has been so brutalized, she is ruined: useless as a prostitute. But she can keep accounts and she sings, so Mama reluctantly takes her in.
"Ruined" is a powerful play that looks unflinchingly at the violence women endure during war. But there's poetry among the brutality and moments of humor and joy are presented along with the fear and the sorrow.
Charles Randolph-Wright directed the current product of Ruined." He is a playwright as well as a director with a long and varied career. He's directed many plays, among them "Guys and Dolls," "Through the Night, "and "Porgy and Bess." His writing credits include "Blue," "Just Between Friends," and the screenplay, "The Emmett Till Story."
When I spoke with Charles I asked him if it was daunting to take on the new production of "Ruined."
Charles Randolph Wright: Absolutely. It's daunting merely because of the subject matter, and then at arena it's specifically daunting because it's in the Fitandor, which is in the Round, so there are all these challenge to do a piece like this. The most important thing for me was that Lynn Nottage, who wrote this, I was able to give a production that she would be proud of that would speak her words in the way that she wanted them, and ultimately I want to honor the women that Lynn based this play upon. I feel their spirits; I feel their energy; I feel especially their joy because we know the devastation and the sorrow, so it's very important to me that we lift these women up in this production, so that's what guided me in dealing with something that was so daunting.
Jo Reed: Here's my question to you, because when I saw it, what struck me is that with a play like "Ruined," it is so powerful you want to honor and respect it, but you don't want to genuflect to it.
Charles Randolph Wright: Exactly.
Jo Reed: You really want it to have life, and you did. You did that wonderfully well, but it would seem to me that that must be kind of a bit of a juggling act.
Charles Randolph Wright: It is a juggling act, and it is difficult because the piece takes place in a brothel, so there's a sexuality that needs to exist. There's violence that must exist in this, and all of those things, I had to realize that we had to put in this piece. It's written there, but also because we're in the Round it's much more prominent. It's really in your face. It's raw, and when you're there in a proscenium space, you have the protection of the fourth wall. You have that protection where you can sit back and say, "Oh, that's over there," and in this space you cannot, and each side, in a way, gets a different view of this world because each side has its own thing, and you see all of these different things happening, so I was very aware of making this work in the Round, which was completely challenging but also thrilling because it's honest. You can't be dishonest in that space.
Jo Reed: How did you go about moving from page to stage with the play? When did you get the actors up on their feet?
Charles Randolph Wright: Yes. Well, I'm notorious for not staying at the table too long. A lot of people do a lot of table work, which I don't like to do as much, and I often say that actors hate me the first week, and then they love me by the time we're in previews because they know what they're doing, and I think especially in this piece and also this wasn't a new play, so we didn't have to do the work that normally you would do on a new play. It's perfection to me. I adore the words, so I was able to get this play up earlier. Also, all of the actors came so prepared. They had done their research. They came in with their questions, and it was easier to answer questions on our feet than sitting around a table, so it happened very, very quickly that we were up and doing runs very early on, but that was also important to me because there are a lot of younger people in this company, and I wanted to protect them from the emotion that would overwhelm them with this, from what was going to happen. None of us were sleeping through this process. It's very difficult, and especially people who had not done this kind of work before, I knew that as a director I had to make them comfortable enough to go to a place that's really disturbing, and every night, for example, the cast gets together before they do the show, and they form a circle, and at the end of the evening they for a circle again so that they leave the Congo on stage, and they don't take this home with them and into their lives because it is omnipresent. It's very difficult to let this go, so it was a huge challenge, and I knew that part of my job as director was protecting them. It's a very difficult process, and, again, you want to honor every aspect of this process, and the thing that surprised people when they would come by the rehearsal room is how much fun we were having because we had such a great time in rehearsal. I knew that even more than anything I had done that this had to be a joyous process.
Jo Reed: There are two things I found very surprising in the play, and one of them was the joyousness that the play has, and the second was the music.
Charles Randolph Wright: Both of them are written into the play, but I knew from the beginning that it was very important to bring them out, that as far as we could go with the joy, as far as we would go with the music, that's how far in the other direction the violence can go. It's truly a roller coaster and peaks and valleys, and the joy is hope, and I ultimately find this a hopeful piece, and my greatest hope, as is Lynn's, is that it causes people to do something; it causes people to be aware that this is not over there, we're a global community now. We're not just people, in this case, in Washington, D.C. This affects all of us. They are us, and the joy was such a great part of this, and I didn't even realize how much it was in the play in reading it until we got up on our feet and worked on it, and just so many points and so many moments where you could bring out that because of the humanness of these people and making these characters as real as possible brought out the joy. It brought out the fact that they were, you know, they were girls. They were barely out of their teenage years, these-- the three lead women in this, you know, besides Mama Nadi. The soldiers are young. They're kid, it's really horrifying. I expanded the cast for this production and used students from the University of Maryland, and especially in this production, it's the one time we're using students was quite appropriate because they were age appropriate, and also I wanted to protect them, but what an experience it has been watching them learn the ways of professional theater because they're still in school, learning what this process is, learning the world of the Congo because I don't know how much any of them had thought about it, and just yesterday there was a very disturbing article in the press about the rate-- that the rape rate, over a thousand women in the Congo are raped every day, every day, and Lynn actually emailed this to me, and I just through how imperative it is what we're doing, especially in this city where it can make a difference, where people can do something, where our lawmakers, our policymakers, people who deal especially with foreign policy, we must do something. We can't sit back because it does affect us. It does change us, and hearing that 1,000 women raped--over 1,000 women raped a day is-- that's unfathomable. Even after doing this piece, it's still-- it just-- it attacks me, and I just realize we have so much to do.
Jo Reed: Well, I think what you're talking about as well is the ability of art to make one feel because 1,000 women raped a day, we have a sense of it, but it's mainly a statistic, but when we go into the world of Sophie or Salima they're fictional, but at the same time that instance becomes real.
Charles Randolph Wright: I received an email from someone who said that they literally forgot that these people were actors, and the curtain call happened, and it stunned them because they were so entrenched in the world. That's the greatest compliment you could ever receive, but they were so entrenched in this world of these people, and I know that now when they read the paper and see these statistics it's no longer over there. It's now something that's present because they have met Sophie and Salima and Mama Nadi and Josephine and they've had this experience. They've shared this experience with them, and that is the power of art. That is the power that we can entertain, but we can also challenge and change and be didactic in a way that is helpful. That's what I love about doing this.
Jo Reed: But the challenge, and I think the challenge that "Ruined" and this production of "Ruined" meets is that nobody wants to go to the theater and see a didactic piece.
Charles Randolph Wright: Exactly, exactly, and I was very aware of that in that process. The script is not that way, so it was imperative to me that the, as we were talking, the joy comes out. The music, must productions, I think, have two musicians. Of course I doubled them, and I wanted to really make people realize that the lyrics are storytelling. Because I've done so many musicals, I used that skill or that gene, my musical gene in how to make the music a part of this world, but as one of the musicians who's Uganda said, you can't do a piece that's African and not have music. You can't really fully express it because it's a part of the fabric of their lives, what music does and represents and how it feels to them, so I wanted it to be a part of that world and also to make the musicians part of Mama Nadi's, not just, "Oh, this musician's playing the songs that are in the play," that they are characters in this world. They each have their identities, and we created characters for them, and they have a through line. All of the characters in this have an arc and a through line. It was thrilling to watch musicians turn into actors and come to me with things and thinking, "Would my character do this," I mean musicians. It was so different <laughs> because a lot of times you have to force musicians to-- they want to do what's-- they want to play their notes, but they also were so involved in this world, and we're very fortunate because we had the musicians from the beginning. Typically they would come in at the end and would feel like a different part of the process. They would feel separate from the process. We had them in the rehearsal room with us, so they went through everything with us and our actors. They're not musicians in this piece. They're characters like everyone else.
Jo Reed: And of course it fits in with the world of the brothel and the bar.
Charles Randolph Wright: Yes, yes.
Jo Reed: But the way scene two opens, we met Sophie in scene one, and what does Mama Nadi say? She looks used.
Charles Randolph Wright: Yes, worn.
Jo Reed: Worn.
Charles Randolph Wright: Yes.
Jo Reed: That's it. She looks worn. Scene two opens, and she's singing, and it's an extraordinary moment, the transformation that comes over her while she's singing.
Music up and hot.
Charles Randolph Wright: We really talked about what that meant and also about what the musicians and that journey for her as that character, what all of that was, and all of the actors are so tremendous. I cannot praise them enough because they just wanted to go deeper and deeper. Rachael, who plays Sophie, an incredible voice. She has an incredible singing voice. She's an incredible actress, but she wanted to sing as Sophie. You know, she wanted to have that trajectory and that arc as Sophie, and because I'm also a musician, we were able to communicate that and to try and to really tell that story musically and not just, "Oh, the actor is singing," and it is thrilling to see an audience take that journey and get it, to really get what's happening to her through that music.
Jo Reed: It's also a challenge, I would think, not to have those three girls--not Mama Nadi, but those three girls just seen as victim.
Charles Randolph Wright: Yes.
Jo Reed: There's a complexity to all of them that this production brings out, and of course Mama Nadi at the center being the most marvelously ambivalent person who protects them and uses them at the same time, and both things are absolutely true.
Charles Randolph Wright: Yes. We were at a talk back, and I was with Jenny, and this woman said, "I don't know how to feel about you," and we loved it because it is that. As she says, the girls are safer with her than they are in their own homes. She gives them this protection, but at the same time, what side is she on?
Excerpt from the play
Mama Nadi: Let all the mother-hating soldiers fight it out. Cause in the end do you think that will change anything here?
Customer: God only knows. The main road is crowded with people going east. There's no shame of leaving, Mama! Part of being in business is knowing when to cut your losses.
Mama Nadi: I have the only pool table in 50km. Where will people drink if anything happens to me?
Customer: Eventually you must fly your colors, take a side!
Mama Nadi: He has me in gold. He has me in …. What is worth more? You tell me! What is their argument? I don't know. Who will win? Who cares?!
Charles Randolph Wright: Who is she? What a complex, extraordinary character, and Jenny Jules, who is from London, who is just astonishing. And she's Mama onstage, and offstage, she's really the anchor of this--of the company, which Mama obviously would be, and she's the one that pulls them together, and as I said, in these in the warm-ups and also in the final circle, she's the one that leads them to let this go, and it takes her a while. She says she has to sit in the dressing room and just let that go. It's such a thing, and she goes there completely every performance. Working with her, working with everyone in this company was life-changing. We all went through, experienced something in this that's indescribable because it's been on so many levels, and then to watch the audience to take the experience with them, I came back in town on Sunday night, and I just came and watched the final scene, and in the audience Sunday night were friends of the Congo, so there were all these people. First of all, the audience, because you get to see the audience, it was so colorful. The outfits just made me smile the second I went in, and the responses were just breathtaking, and at the curtain call, when they came out for the curtain call, everyone was standing, but the first few rows were all the friends of the Congo, and they were bowing to the actors, and I just broke down, you know, I just broke down crying in the audience because I'd never seen it like that. I've never seen that happen, and Jeremiah plays Christian said, "Literally they had to take me peel me up off the floor, because I new we had done the exact right thing when people--" the ambassador from the Congo came to opening, and she said, "There are just so many small things that were so right," you know. The overall picture you know, but it's that. I'm about details. I'm about the world of this and being as authentic as possible, but also being theatrical, also honoring the tradition, and watching those people bow to the actors is something I'll never forget. That's why we do what we do. It's just really restored me in what theater can do and is supposed to do, and yes you can have these great things that you just enjoy, but to be able to enjoy to be entertained and to really feel to your core, I don't know how many experiences in a career that you get this way, but to have had this experience is something that I will never forget.
Jo Reed: Arena is committed to keeping a dialogue with the audience going about the subjects raised by the play, and they do it in a number of ways with forums and with talkbacks. And I know you've been involved in a few of them. What did you hear from the audience?
Charles Randolph Wright: Well, it's interesting because I remember one woman specifically saying she was completely unaware that this was happening over there. "I just never knew that." I said, "Well--" and several of us said, "It's happening here." I said, "You know, when football players in a Southern town rape a 12-year-old girl, when you have these experiences, that pack mentality that happen when men lose control, and unfortunately it's aimed at women." Rape becomes a weapon, and I said, "This is really imperative for us to understand that it's, you know, it's in our backyard. It's in our front yard," you know, and it was interesting watching people being surprised that the actors are not African, which is thrilling, that they didn't realize that because I really wanted, again, verisimilitude is a great word. I wanted to have that verisimilitude that people really believed they're in the Congo as opposed to, "Oh, look at these actors pretending to be African," and many actors in the company are, you know. I mean the first day I had everyone talk about their backgrounds, and…so two are Nigerian. One's Ugandan. One is South African. One has family in Jamaica. And all of our experiences talking about being first generation or second generation or all of these stories, those stories have mingled on stage and have imbued these characters because there is this authenticity, this honesty, and so in the talk backs, people being riveted by the performances but also being very moved to do something and wanting to do something, and that's what is the most encouraging.
Jo Reed: We mentioned it earlier, but I'm always impressed by the power of art to be transformative…
Charles Randolph Wright: Yes.
Jo Reed: …and how storytelling is just at the heart of everything that means to us, I think.
Charles Randolph Wright: I live in New York City when I'm not living in the airport, and 9/11 I was actually on my bicycle. I live downtown, and I used to bike by the World Trade Center every day, and I was getting on my bike when this happened and about to head downtown, and that evening a friend of mine who was a retired general in the army called me and just to see how I was, which he got through because the cell phone service was impossible, and I went to college to be a doctor, and I said to him, "I really feel so useless. I wish I were a doctor. I want to be able to help all these people. I feel I can't do anything. I should've been a doctor," and I was just I was really frantic. And he said to me, "Art is the salve that heals our wounds, and you have healed far more people with what you do than you ever had-- than you ever would have as a doctor," and it's remained with me, and that was ten years ago. When you actually get to see something where you see it in action. When we did Sophisticated Ladies last year at the Lincoln, the theater where Duke Ellington started, and what happened to that neighborhood, the energy in the neighborhood, the pride of that, being able to go beyond those walls, extend into the community, and make a difference, so many things like that, to be able to have those experiences, I am so blessed. I am so fortunate that I've been able to do the work I get to do.
Jo Reed: You were in school to be a doctor. What made you decide theater is going to be your life?
Charles Randolph Wright: I actually saw a show that did it, and it was the show, "Pippin," and I was in an organic chemistry lab, and my roommate, who lives in D.C., my roommate had tickets for this touring company of the show, and his girlfriend was ill, and he said, "I have this extra ticket," and anything to get out of lab. I was, like, "Great, let me go," and I went to see this show, and overnight, I mean I'd always been interested. I played instruments in high school and grew up musical, but that was not something I was pursuing. I was going to be a doctor, and overnight I changed. Overnight I knew this show completely impacted me in a way that I realized that I had to pursue it, and my mother's an English professor, and she always used to say, there's a quote: "A man's reach should exceed his grasp; for what's a heaven for--Frederick Pearls, and she would always say that. And I realized it's far more-- the pursuit of the dream is far more important than the dream. I've been very fortunate that I've had so many dreams come true, but it's always about the pursuit to me, and I knew that I had to do that because I said, "I can always go back to med school. I want, I want to try this," and 30 years later (laughs) it's been quite the journey. I was a performer. I get to, I write. I direct. I worked in television. I work in film. I work in theater. I do all the things that I've wanted to do, and you watch something-- I stand, and I watch "Ruined," and I just say thank you. I'm so grateful that I am able to tell stories.
Jo Reed: As you mentioned, you're a playwright. You have to be probably one of the best hyphenates out there. It just goes on and on and on.
Charles Randolph Wright: As my name is hyphenated, too. I guess it's part of that, right? I don't know.
Jo Reed: Well because you're a playwright as well is there a difference in the way you direct your own work or approach the task of directing your own your work as opposed to directing someone else's play like Lynn Nottage's "Ruined."
Charles Randolph Wright: As a director, I obviously have that writer head, so I really respect what is on the page and know that I must honor what's one the page, and before we even did this production I said to Lynn Nottage, "What do you want in this production that you've been unable to get somewhere else? What can I give you?" And I think the idea of the scope of this production, because actors had to double in the other productions. One actor would be the bad guy in one scene and turn around and be on the opposing, the opposing soldier in another scene, so it's and in proscenium it's easier to suspend that belief, but in here, and these spaces are so distinct. I could not do that, but it allowed so I had to increase the size, of course. Arena loves me with budgets. I had to increase the size of the production. She had always wanted Jenny Jules to play this role. Jenny did it in London, and I made it my goal to get Jenny here to play Mama Nadi. I didn't realize truly how imperative that was until she came, the first day we started rehearsals. I just went, "I have been given the greatest gift there is with this actress." So I approached this in the way realizing the writer's path, realizing how do I get out of the way and let the words do what they're supposed to do? How do I place them in the best possible way that you can interpret what this writer intended or what this writer didn't even know to give it a view and try not to put my view on top of that, you know, try to be as open in displaying the journey as I can, and I think because that's what I want when I'm a writer, and I don't like to write and direct at the same time. I really love the collaboration. I mean I've done it, but I love that collaboration, and typically when been in both roles, I was co-writing or something, so I still had that collaboration. It's the respect. It's the love of the words and love of what this is that I try to bring to everything I do, so the best thing I could do is get out of the way and make it have the life it should have.
That was Charles Randolph-Wright. He's the director of the current production of Lynn Nottage's "Ruined," now playing at the Arena Stage. You've been listening to Art You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from "Ruined," used courtesy of Arena Stage. Special thanks to actors Jenny Jules, Rachael Holmes, and Lawrence Redmond. As well as musicians Mongezi Chris Ntaka, Waldo Robertson, David Foreman and Daniel Ssuna. As well as sound designer Lindsay Jones.
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Next week, author Sean Wilentz discusses his biography of Bob Dylan.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.