By Michael H. Margolin
Just two blocks apart in downtown Detroit, two shows about Africa and its post-colonialist turmoil are playing – “Fela” at Music Hall, which opened earlier this week, and last night’s Detroit premiere of 2009 Pulitzer winner “Ruined” by Lynn Nottage at the Boll Theatre in the downtown YMCA.
In song, lots of color, dance and slide projections, “Fela” tells of life in Nigeria in the last half of the 20th century; by contrast, “Ruined” takes place in a mining town in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in one set, amidst civil war, the vanquished and the vanquisher the same people, dying by machete and gun. As one character who lives by bribery and his wits says: “I understood Mobuto’s brand of chaos – now I am a beginner,” setting the time somewhat after the corrupt dictator fled from rebel forces in 1997 and during the ensuing civil war carnage.
Caught in the middle of this turmoil is Mama’s, a rundown bar/whorehouse, where soldiers, miners, rebels can get cold beer and warm flesh. Mama, an independent woman who rules her roost with a strong hand and a backhand to the women behind the curtained living and screwing quarters, takes in two women in Act I who shake the delicate balance of her open-door-to-anyone policy.
These two women are brought to her by the man known as the “professor”: They are Salima and Sophie, who, for different reasons, have been ruined by the war and by men.
It is not clear in Nottage’s play whether Man or Civil War is the real enemy. Sophie was impaled by a bayonet and Salima, captured and treated as a concubine for five months, has been subsequently freed and turned away by her husband.
Nottage’s play makes Sophie’s story the centerpiece of Act I and we are asked to feel anger, outrage, sadness. In Act II, when her husband repents and comes for her, it is too late, as her life ends in melodramatic tragedy.
In what might seem like a coda, the last few minutes of the Act find the war even closer to this little enclave ruled by Mama (home and hearth, if you credit the symbolism of the character’s name); the “professor” returns and the play ends as they dance around the now-empty-of-customers bar.
The ending is incongruous, negating the earlier horror stories of Sophie’s and Selima’s lives. It is like ending a play on the French Revolution with a dinner party. In fact, Mama is a strong feminist figure who goes her own way – would she waltz out in the arms of a man? There are other incongruities and basic dramatic oversights in the play.
The story of Congolese women is a story that is meant to be told – not just on news specials or in magazines, but on the stage where an audience can be moved to understand through characters who breathe real life into the performance. (Fela’s mother was killed by Nigerian forces who threw her from a window.)
In the past, Plowshares Theatre has shown us real fire, passion, turned-on, robust acting in the directorial leadership of the able Gary Anderson, the artistic director of Plowshares and director of this play.
This is not one of those productions. The pace is sluggish, the lighting plot (Aaron Tabaczynski) is insufficient; the stage is overcrowded and cramped so that actors need to negotiate with the set (John Manfredi).
The performances are adequate, but not enough to take our mind off the lazy plotting or underwriting of the historical background. As Mama, Iris M. Farrugia shows moments of charm, but is not robust enough; as the “professor,” likable Augustus Williamson has big expansive moments, but then relapses into a near-whisper. The two key females, Mandi Masden and Tiffany Small, Salima and Sophie respectively, imitate their wounds and sorrows, but do not send these emotions out into the auditorium where an audience is waiting to be moved.
The entire production seems muted, enclosed in that claustrophobic set, and though some of the action is just a few feet from the audience, there seems to be a glass wall in place of the imaginary fourth wall, between the actors and us.
Others in the cast are K Edwards (Josephine), Samer Ajluni (Mr. Harari), Taurean Hogan (Jerome Kisembe), Armond Jackson (the Commander, terrifyingly real), Charlie Newhart (Simon) and Myron Mwade Cureton (Laurent).
As Plowshares continues this spring season, the final play will be August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” a playwright often incomparably served by Plowshares and fine Detroit actors.
Plowshares Theatre Company at Boll Family YMCA Theater, 1401 Broadway, Detroit. Thursday-Sunday through March 11. $27.50-$32. 313-593-0926. http://www.plowsharestheatre.org