JEFFREY BROWN: It’s set in a small bar in the Congo, but Lynn Nottage’s recent Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Ruined” tells an epic story about the ravages of war, especially its impact on women.
ACTRESS: But is this who you want to be?
ACTRESS: I’m sorry, mama, but…
ACTRESS: No. No. I will put you out on your ass.
LYNN NOTTAGE, playwright: You get little sound bites in the news. You get the statistics. But I wanted to hear the narratives of the women. It’s like, who are they? What is it like to be a woman who hasn’t started this war, but finds herself trapped in the middle of a war?
Nearly 5 million people have died in the Congo right now and, I thought, half of them are women and children, but yet we don’t know their names. We don’t know who they are. We don’t know what their stories are.
Learning the stories of war
JEFFREY BROWN: To learn their stories, Nottage traveled from her Brooklyn, New York, home to refugee camps in Uganda, seeking a rounded portrait of lives caught up in a civil war in the Congo that's dragged on for several decades the humor and love, as well as the pain.
LYNN NOTTAGE: I wanted to sustain the complexity of modern Africa, which means sort of looking at both sides, looking at the horror and the beauty. I didn't go to Africa as a journalist. And when I was sitting down, I wasn't listening with a journalist's ear; I was listening with a storyteller's ear.
ACTRESS: Good news. The commander is buying you a drink of whiskey...
JEFFREY BROWN: The story she tells on stage centers around a character named Mama Nadi, the always tough and sometimes compassionate owner of a bar that doubles as a brothel, who must carefully balance the demands of whoever is in power at a given moment, the government or the rebels.
The play's title, "Ruined," refers to the psychological and physical damage to the women who work at the bar, victims of rape, abuse, and in some cases genital mutilation.
ACTRESS: I want to go home.
ACTRESS: Look at me. Look here. If you leave, where will you go? You sleep in the bush, scrounge for food in a stinking refugee camp?
JEFFREY BROWN: In this scene, 18-year-old Sophie advises another young woman to stay in the brothel, despite its own hardships.
ACTRESS: It's better this way here.
ACTRESS: But I want to...
ACTRESS: You want to what? You want to be thrown out there? Where will you go, Salima, huh? Your village, your husband? How much goodness did they show you?
ACTRESS: Why did you say that?
ACTRESS: I'm sorry, but you know it's true.
ACTRESS: You don't have to be with them. Sometimes their hands are so full of rage that it hurts to be touched. This night, I look over at you singing, and you seem almost happy like a sun bird that can fly away if you reach out to touch it.
ACTRESS: Is that what you think? While I am singing, I am praying that one day the pain will be gone. But what those men did to me lives inside of my body. Every step I take, I feel them in me, punishing me, and it will be that way for the rest of my life.
JEFFREY BROWN: Was that hard to write about?
LYNN NOTTAGE: For me, it was incredibly hard to write about. For a long time, I couldn't tell some of the stories without feeling emotionally overwhelmed. And still sometimes when I'm talking about it I go back to that moment when I heard the very, very first story and I thought that my heart was going to leap out of my body.
Becoming a playwright
JEFFREY BROWN: At 44, Lynn Nottage is a fourth-generation New Yorker who lives in the Brooklyn house she grew up in, now with a husband and young daughter. Winner of a 2007 MacArthur fellowship and many other honors, she's written a variety of very different stories for the stage from deadly serious to brightly satirical, with one common thread: strong women characters.
Her role model, she says, are her grandmother and mother. As for how she became a playwright, she's convinced that came from growing up in a neighborhood filled with unusual characters and stories.
LYNN NOTTAGE: I think it's no accident that, on this block, you either became a criminal, you became a person who was in law enforcement, or you become an artist, and those are the three things.
This is an incredibly rich neighborhood. It's like, I can look at every single brownstone on this street and tell you a story about it and tell you about the people who live there.
JEFFREY BROWN: In her youth, Nottage's Boerum Hill neighborhood was, she says, a uniquely diverse area with boarding houses and prostitutes, as well as working-class families. Today it's gentrified, though some things have stayed the same.
LYNN NOTTAGE: And here's the mysterious house, and I've never seen anyone come and go in all the years that I've lived here.
JEFFREY BROWN: You mean in all your life?
LYNN NOTTAGE: All of my entire life, I have never seen anyone enter or leave this house.
JEFFREY BROWN: There's a potential play for you, the -- who's in the house?
LYNN NOTTAGE: Who's in that house? But somehow the flowers still manage to grow and get watered.
JEFFREY BROWN: Nottage got the theater bug as a teenager standing in line on weekends to see plays like "Annie" and "The Wiz."
LYNN NOTTAGE: I just fell absolutely in love with the stage. And I wrote my very first play in high school, which was called "The Darker Side of Verona," which was about an all-African-American Shakespearean theater group.
JEFFREY BROWN: "The Darker Side of Verona"?
LYNN NOTTAGE: "The Darker Side of Verona."
JEFFREY BROWN: Many plays later, Lynn Nottage is perhaps the most acclaimed playwright of the year.
ACTRESS: What did you think you were going to do with my money?
ACTRESS: Mama, please.
ACTRESS: Huh? Huh?
JEFFREY BROWN: In addition to the Pulitzer, "Ruined" has won, among others, the New York Critics Circle award, the Outer Critics Circle award, and the Obie Award for best play.