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Ujima's Latest: "Ruined"

Cameron Brown, Careem Brown, and Brandon Williamson are among the new generation of promising actors at Ujima Theater Company.

Ruined @ Ujima

Playwright Lynn Nottage visited Congolese women in refugee camps in Uganda while she was doing research for Ruined, her adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 play, Mother Courage and Her Children. When she told them the title of Brecht’s play, they spoke the words, “Mother Courage,” back to her in French, with such meaning and sorrowful pride that she completely rethought her direction and her play quickly started to come into focus. She would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Ujima Theater Company is currently presenting Ruined on their stage at TheatreLoft, in a moving production featuring Annette Daniels Taylor as “Mama Nadi,” Nottage’s variation on Brecht’s titular character. Unlike Brecht’s script, which finds ways to distance the audience in order to engage them intellectually, Nottage goes for the emotions with a fury.

Brecht’s play was set during the 30 Years’ War of the 17th century, and followed Mother as she tries to make a profit from the war, switching allegiances between Catholics and Protestants, as opportunities arise. She loses virtually everything. In Ruined, Mama Nadi similarly tries to cater to both sides while running a little oasis of a bar and brothel in the midst of the Congolese civil war.

When Ujima producer called Annette Daniels Taylor to offer her the role of Mama Nadi, she found the opportunity too enticing to resist.

“It was this summer, and I was doing Macbeth in Delaware Park at the time,” recalls Daniels-Taylor. “My husband [Rodney Taylor] is a working visual artist and had a show coming up. We have four children, so we try to alternate our projects to allow each other opportunities. The timing was terrible, but the opportunity was just irresistible.

She and her husband negotiated. He reminded Annette that she had recently become more of a writer than an actor. In fact, her play, A Little Bit of Paradise, had won the Artie Award as Outstanding New Play when it premiered at Road Less Traveled. Finally, however, they agreed that she should not let this particular opportunity pass her by. They accommodated the project into their lives. (For the record, Rodney Taylor is one of the featured artists in the new show at UB’s Anderson Gallery, part of Beyond/In Western New York 2010: Alternating Currents. See page 25 to read more about the biennial.)

“To begin,” says Daniels Taylor, “I was excited that Lorna thought of me for the role. And acting in the theater is very different from writing for the theater. As an actor, I feel a sense of relief when I arrive at the theater. During the show, the theater becomes like your church as you give yourself over to someone else’s script.”

Daniels Taylor found that acting in Lynn Nottage’s play taught her a great deal about her own writing.

“So much of what you see in a performance…was not actually written in a script,” observes Daniels Taylor. “I think, for example of the scene in Ruined, in which Christian [the salesman] tells Mama Nadia that he loves her. When I first did the scene, I simply got mad at him. On the surface, that is what is written. But as we rehearsed it, I began to laugh at him. At that moment in the play, so much of what motivates Mama is hidden from Christian and hidden from the audience. I realized that she might express anger at first, but laughter is the more authentic reaction. They talk about their relationship and how they laugh together, and we often see her scolding him, or other people. That reaction, at that particular moment, reveals a lot more about her.

“The discovery is that [unlike Mother Courage] Mama Nadi is not a monster. She has walked into the thick unbroken brush. She feels so much a part of the Congo and she has developed certain rules to survive. But what we see on the surface is not all that is there.

“Mama is running a bar and brothel, and when the husband of one of her girls comes looking for his wife, she leaves the stage and returns to say there is no such woman there. People ask me if Mama ever told Salima that her husband was there, and the script does not explicitly say whether she does or not, but I know she does. She tells the man that he is not the first person to come looking for a wife there, and I am sure that is true.

“In my own writing, I am thinking about how I can use fewer words to say more,” she continues. “It is important to give the actors their freedom and to trust them to bring life to your characters. If you try to write too detailed a roadmap, it becomes lifeless. That is why Lynn Nottage’s characters are so real. She trusts actors.

“There were a number of times, while we were rehearsing, that I wanted to call her up to ask her a question. I could have done that, because we have mutual friends in New York. But each time, after a day or two had gone by, I found the answer in her play. So while I would still love to speak with Lynn Nottage, at this point it would have been to tell her what a joy it is to do her play—a call from a fan! I no longer need to ask her about things that she had already told me through her writing.”

Rahwa Ghirmatzion, executive producer for Ujima, reports that audience response to Ruined in its first weekend has been robust.

“Better than we had even hoped,” says Ghirmatzion. “And this is an important production for us. Ujima is at a crossroads where a number of the original company members are gone and we need to replenish the talent. At the same time, funding for the arts is very precarious. You are seeing a lot of brand new people in Ruined, and a lot of people who are learning about acting and the theater by working with us. We would like to establish formal acting classes, because this is such an important process for the company.”

There are aspects of the production that suggest a company in transition. Direction has been lavished on the performances of minor characters, but elements like scene changes take too long. Given the whole, however, the flaws are forgivable.

Ruined is notable for the remarkable ingénues. Shanntina Moore, who was memorable as the snake in In de Beginnin’, plays Salima, whose husband has rejected her when she is raped by soldiers, and gives an achingly moving performance. Zoe Viola Scruggs is wonderfully appealing as Sophie, a girl who has been “ruined” by soldiers, making her unusable as a prostitute; her singing is especially impressive. Cantal Dubose, who demonstrated perfect comic timing in The Exonerated last season, provides an entirely satisfying contrasting performance as Josephine, the daughter of a chief, reduced to prostitution.

As striking, however, is the large number of promising young men who populate the stage: Peter Johnson, Phil Davis, Brandon Williamson, Stephon Applewhite, twin brothers Cameron Brown and Careem Brown, and Merneptah Sealy. Collectively, they represent a whole new generation of men at Ujima, adding to the always excellent Hugh Davis, who plays Christian; Carlton Franklin, who plays the rebel commander; Donald Capers, who plays the searching husband; and Willie Judson, who is terrifying and especially fine as Commander Osembenga.

Playing soldiers on opposing sides of a civil war, the performances of these men lend the production an aura of menace and foreboding, even as they enter Mama’s place to play. Through it all, Annette Daniels Taylor is a commanding presence as a woman whose cruelty is informed by the silence of what she knows.

“I love the hopeful ending of the play,” says Daniels Taylor. “We do travel through some painful territory before we get there. But in rehearsal, Lorna kept reminding us, ‘Just feel it for two hours. That is nothing compared to what these women live.’”

Bob Ball and Lorna C. Hill have provided a handsome realistic set.

Ruined plays through October 10.