Kate Whoriskey, the new artistic director of Intiman Theatre, made her bones as a Major American Artist with Ruined, a drama about a brothel surrounded by war in the Congo.
She and playwright Lynn Nottage (Intimate Apparel) developed the work over six years, traveled to Uganda to conduct interviews with women who fled the Congolese violence, premiered it at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, took it to the Manhattan Theatre Club, and walked away with a Pulitzer Prize.
Theirs is an object lesson in how to develop new American plays, a topic of serious local and national discussion these days: a commission from a regional theater; a close collaboration between a writer and a director; the time, money, and resources to write and research; a premier production (many theaters want premieres but shun seconds) followed by a second production that netted a pile of awards and nominations for its writer, director, cast, and composer. (Ruined has a few key Afropop barroom songs for drums and guitar by Dominic Kanza, who went on to play guitar and bass for Shakira's official 2010 World Cup song.)
Now Whoriskey has brought Ruined to make her bones in Seattle, a city curious to see whether the young director—anointed by outgoing director Bartlett Sher as his heir apparent—was the right choice to lead Intiman. The curiosity intensified after the run of The Thin Place (the theater's first play after Whoriskey officially took over), a messy and tepidly received docudrama based on interviews with local residents about their relationship with God.
But Ruined, featuring many actors from the award-winning MTC production, is a strong comeback. Originally inspired by Mother Courage, Bertolt Brecht's canonical and form-busting play about a woman trying to live (and make a profit) through a long European war, Ruined took a more traditional shape after Nottage and Whoriskey began their African sojourn. The result is more Tennessee Williams than Brecht, a drama of emotions and relationships—instead of Mother Courage's colder, more polemical approach—between the employees and patrons of a small brothel in a Congolese jungle, where the stone-hard Mama Nadi (played by the regal and single-named Portia) demands that visitors drop their bullets in a bin by the front door.
Derek McLane's set pushes the brothel action to the front of the stage, while a tall jungle of tree trunks looms behind, occasionally echoing with gunfire or lit to reveal men with drawn guns. As much as Nadi would like to banish the war from her establishment, it keeps creeping through her door—gently, at first, when a small-time trader and entrepreneur named Christian (Russell G. Jones) brings Nadi two young women. They come into the bar flinching, terrified, with embers of buried rage shining behind their eyes. One, named Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), is a half-blind wife and mother who was abducted and kept for years as a soldiers' concubine, then rejected by her husband when she tried to return. The other, named Sophie (Condola Rashad), has been "ruined": raped with a bayonet, her sexual organs mutilated. (She becomes the brothel's bookkeeper and house singer.) "What is your name?" Nadi asks.
"Sophie," the young woman says.
"And do you have a smile?"
Nadi is reluctant to take the girls on—"Take both, feed them as one," Christian advises—but helps them both find their smiles in a complicated relationship that walks somewhere between protection and exploitation. Bernstine and Rashad give deep and turbulent performances as women who have been horribly wounded, but whose wounds don't constitute the entirety of their characters. Another prostitute, the proud, ostentatious, and jealous Josephine (Cherise Boothe), says she's the daughter of a village chief and has been thrust into Mama Nadi's house by bad luck.
And then there are the men. Soldiers come and go in the bar, transposed from one side of the conflict to the other by double casting. "This fucking war, ay mother, no one owns it!" complains Mr. Harari, a white diamond trader played by Tom Mardirosian. "It's everybody's and nobody's. It keeps fracturing and redefining itself, militias form overnight and suddenly a drunken foot soldier with a tribal vendetta is a rebel leader and in possession of half of the enriched land, but you can't reason with him, because he's only thinking as far as his next drink."
"You know better, Mr. Harari," Nadi pointedly reminds him. "You're in the Congo. Things slip through our fingers like butter."
And so it goes: Soldiers come to drink and then to pillage, Salima's husband, in a soldier's uniform, comes looking for her, the good luck rolls in with the bad. Though it ends with a sentimentalism and symmetry that feels slightly too melodious for the rest of the play's discord—Brecht, famous hater of empathy in theater, would've reeled—Nottage and Whoriskey have built a multifaceted drama as complicated and changeable as life.
The Laramie Project has aged well: Ten years after its premiere, the dissection of a small Wyoming town shocked by the torture and murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard still stings. The documentary drama, based on interviews with Laramie residents by Moisés Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project, has been something of a celebrity parade over the years. Performers from Peter Fonda to Cyndi Lauper to Christina Ricci have taken their turns as part of the Laramie ensemble, in which actors play the actors who originally conducted the interviews and the characters they interviewed—social workers, doctors, a police officer afraid she'd contracted HIV from Shepard's blood, local meth users, the bartender who saw Shepard leave the Fireside Lounge with his killers (two young men who savagely beat him, hung him on a fence, and left him to die in the cold October night), a Catholic priest, a Baptist preacher (who brutally says during his interview that he hoped Shepard had "time to reflect on his lifestyle" and how it'd led him to this bloody end before he slipped into his coma), and several others.
The strength of The Laramie Project relies on its ensemble, and director Greg Carter (of Strawberry Theatre Workshop, which won a Stranger Genius Award in 2007) has assembled a quality team, with Alycia Delmore (Humpday), Galen Joseph Osier (Crime and Punishment at Intiman), and six others. Nick Garrison, best known for his musical-theater performances (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Cabaret), gives frankly natural performances as a nerdy academic adviser and a drawling, country queer in a denim and sheepskin jacket.
Some of the sections where the Strawberry actors play Tectonic's actors ring false—their "sharing" of each others' diaries and "spontaneously" laughing as they recall the interviews feel stiff and forced. Part of the failure lies with the script, which should have the actors-playing-actors bits severely edited down. Hearing about Tectonic's process of collecting the material becomes less interesting with time. But when the actors slip into their small-town characters, it becomes clear that The Laramie Project is much bigger than Matthew Shepard or Laramie, Wyoming, or the Tectonic Theater Project. At its best, the play is big enough to encompass small towns all over the world where people draw battle lines—based on race, class, religion, sexual orientation, whatever—and what happens when violence explodes along those borders.