Ruination and Redemption

Suddenly there’s a small Lynn Nottage festival going on in the Bay Area, with two of the acclaimed contemporary playwright’s works running simultaneously on two sides of the bay: Ruined at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre’s production of Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine at Fort Mason’s Southside Theater (across the hall from, and formerly part of, Magic Theatre).

Ruined at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Photo courtesy of

The Brooklyn-born, African-American playwright is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, MacArthur “Genius” Grant and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Her 2003 play Intimate Apparel about a seamstress in 1905 New York has been making the rounds of local theaters ever since its 2005 Northern California premiere at TheatreWorks, last playing at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse this February and San Rafael’s AlterTheater last fall.

Helmed by South African-born director Liesl Tommy, the Berkeley Rep production Nottage’s 2009 Pulitzer-winning play Ruined (also offered as part of Lorraine Hansberry’s subscription season) is a coproduction with La Jolla Playhouse and Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company and played at both theaters before coming to the Bay Area. Although not without humor, it’s a weightier and more sobering play than Fabulation, and it’s a near-flawless production that’s an absolute must-see.

Ruined is set in Mama Nadi’s bar and whorehouse in a small mining town in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (In addition to its metals and diamonds, the Congo is prized as the primary source of coltan, a high-charge conductor used in electronics, which makes Ruined in a way a companion piece to The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which recently closed on the Rep’s Thrust Stage next door.)   The women who work there, who all look to be in their teens or early twenties, have been cast out from their families after being raped by soldiers, an all-too-common weapon of war in the Congo. In addition to the mellower clientele of miners, rival armies come to Mama’s place to satisfy their various thirsts, although the two forces are never there at the same time.

The rebel army is wilder and more casually dressed while the government forces are more buttoned-down and disciplined, but both are equally corrupt and menacing, with the threat of violence never far from the surface. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Kisembe’s (Wendell B. Franklin) rambunctious rebels or Osembenga’s soldiers standing stiff at attention: whenever there are soldiers in the house, everyone’s one wrong move away from getting slaughtered–or much, much worse. Each faction warns against the atrocities the other army has committed, and from the way they say it you know they’re both telling the truth. War makes monsters of everyone.

Tonye Patano is formidable as Mama Nadi, who keeps the peace in her place through sheer force of personality. We first meet her making snappy conversation with the charming traveling salesman Christian (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) who brings her some new girls along with her other supplies. She’s ready to turn Sophie (Carla Duren) away when she learns that she’s “ruined,” horribly wounded from being violated with a bayonet, but Christian convinces Mama to take her in anyway. Whenever we’re tempted to think Mama is a softie at heart she shows her harder side, and vice versa. She’s a forceful, self-made woman who made her place in the world by doing whatever she had to in order to survive.

The cast handles the lyrical accents beautifully and gives powerful performances throughout. Adjepong and Patano have marvelous chemistry as Christian and Mama, making their verbal sparring a delight. Duren’s Sophie has a compellingly haunting, haunted quality, and when she sings it’s enough to give you chills. Pascale Armand gives a moving performance as her friend Salima, whose husband cast her off after she was abducted by soldiers as a sex slave. Though their pain and sadness is palpable, what’s truly remarkable is the capacity they retain for joy and playfulness, at least when left alone to themselves.

Zainab Jah’s Josephine, the hard-edged pro of the house, dances with aggressive booty-shaking fury. Joseph Kamal exudes breezy, slightly smarmy refinement as Mr. Harari, a Lebanese businessman in a white suit. Adrian Roberts gives a chilling portrait of casual abuse of power as the overbearing Commander Osembenga, and Jason Bowen makes a forthright and driven Fortune, Salima’s husband come looking for her.

Clint Ramos’s marvelous set conjures an open-air bar lined with old cola ads and surrounded by trees and bushes. Costumer Kathleen Geldard provides colorful African dresses for Mama and uniforms that nicely separate the two armies. In addition to lively African pop music played by Alvin Terry and Adesoji Odukogbe as the two-man house band, Broken Chord also provides a dense underlying soundscape of birds, tree frogs and other rainforest noises, and Lap Chi Chu’s lighting aptly captures the shifting shadows all around.

The first act is very, very good, although occasionally there’s a sense of something not quite clicking. It’s hard to focus on an expository conversation between Mama and Mr. Harari, for example, because the silent hijinks going on in the bar behind them seem more interesting at the time. The second act, however, is superb, with one heartrending moment after another, each in a different way, and a tremendous performance from Patano. Ruined is emotionally exhausting and at times horrific, but it’s also a breathtaking work of theater that’s not to be missed.

Margo Hall and Rudy Guerrero in Fabulation. Photo by Moanalani Jeffrey.

The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre’s production of Nottage’s 2004 comedy Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine was originally scheduled for last year but repeatedly delayed because of the poor health and eventual deaths of both founders of the company, artistic director Stanley E. Williams and executive director Quentin Easter. (Former ACT core company member Steven Anthony Jones recently took over the artistic helm.)

As seen in a lively production directed by Ellen Sebastian Chang, Fabulation is a much more lightweight play than Ruined. A high-powered Manhattan PR executive is suddenly left by her husband, who took all her money and left her pregnant and penniless, and she winds up living back in Brooklyn with her working-class family whom she hasn’t seen in years (all of whom work as security guards). She long ago changed her name from Sharona to Undine and has pretended that they’re dead ever since. (She claims it was a misprint in a Black Entrepreneur magazine profile on her that she never corrected.) “I’ve returned to my original Negro state,” she says, serving as her own narrator.

Margo Hall is a propulsive force as the swaggering hardass publicist Undine, first seen pacing and berating her assistant as she tries to line up celebrities for a fallopian blockage benefit. Cynical and sarcastic, she’s someone who’s obviously hard to take for the people around her, but she’s a lot of fun to take this journey with because she’s accustomed to giving shit, not taking it, and doesn’t mince words about it.

It takes a few scenes for Sebastian Chang’s production to find its footing.  At first the broad, non-naturalistic acting is puzzling and seems like an awkward fit with the material: Why, one wonders, is her accountant (David Westley Skillman) acting so goofy when he tells her that her husband’s been embezzling from her? There are ups and downs throughout, but the production soon hits its stride and gives us some very funny moments along the way. Skillman, for instance, is priceless as the jolly Yoruba priest who tells Undine the spirit Elegba is angry with her, and as a recovering drug addict who talks about how far he rose as a professor expounding about books he hadn’t read on crack. (“As he shares his loathsome confession,” Undine says, “I’m actually strangely curious to smoke crack cocaine.”)

Halili Knox turns in terrific performances as a snooty French-accented society friend of Undine’s who actually grew up in Harlem, as Undine’s grounded mother, and as an appallingly callous social services gatekeeper, among others. Daveed Diggs puts up with none of Undine’s pretensions as her brother Flow, a Walgreens guard working on an epic poem about Br’er Rabbit, and Diggs also plays an amusing rapper ex-boyfriend, a wary drug dealer and a Caribbean-accented doctor. Michael J. Asberry displays touching simplicity as Undine’s father, talking about people from the neighborhood who could have been somebody.

Rudy Guerrero is devilishly suave as Undine’s Argentine husband Hervé and disarmingly forthright as optimistic ex-addict Guy, who asks Undine out in the drug education program to which she’s sentenced after being busted buying heroin for her grandma (Carla Punch). Britney Frazier is shaky in her first role as Undine’s assistant but later has an amusing turn as a pugnacious young woman Undine meets in jail.

For all the script’s humor, handled deftly by the ensemble, the play wields satire as a blunt instrument. Undine gets tossed through jail, social services, self-help groups and the American health system and comments on what’s screwed up about each of them. In the process, of course, she also learns some much-needed humility. If that sounds a little pat, like an afterschool special, it does sometimes feel that way. It’s no Ruined, but Nottage’s wry dialogue and the entertaining cast still make the familiar journey of Fabulation one worth taking.

Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine
Through March 27
Southside Theater
Fort Mason Center
Building D
San Francisco, CA

Through April 10
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2015 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Fabulation: Show #19 of 2011, attended March 6.

Ruined: Show #16 of 2011, attended March 2.

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