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Ruined at Obsidian: A Powerful Example of Negotiation for Survival

The setup:

Lynn Nottage's play Ruined won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 and a host of New York theater awards, and its Texas premiere at Obsidian Art Space makes clear why - it is a powerful drama of human frailty, populated with strongly individual characters, and filled with humor. It is set in a bar/brothel in the Congo, in the middle of a long-running Civil War. Critics have compared it to Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage, but it also echoes the themes of Jean Genet's The Balcony - all three reveal the horrors and idiocies of war, and all three belong in the pantheon of great theater.

The execution:

The intimate Obsidian Art Space, with seating on three sides, is perfect for this play, and a ramshackle bar and a few simple tables and chairs serve well to define the setting, which soon takes on the rich and tortured texture of pulsing humanity. The establishment is run by Mama Nadi, played by Qamara Black, who has created an oasis where guns are checked at the door, and where a drink and a girl can let a soldier forget his cares. A frequent visitor is the civilian trader Christian, played by Atseko Factor, the only patron to wear a suit, and who has feelings for Mama. Both actors provide nuanced performances of energy and charm, and Black finds the manipulative charisma of Mama, who keeps her raft of a business afloat in a pool of sharks.

Christian persuades Mama to take in two girls who have been raped by soldiers or otherwise "ruined", so as to be unfit for marriage and rejected by their families. Sophie (Miatta Lebile) becomes a bookkeeper and "cabaret" singer, and Salima (Ujo Edoziem) joins another girl, Josephine (Teri Mills) in providing pillow comfort to the troops. Each of the three creates a unique portrait, carving out a sharp individuality that is memorable.

The intimidating commanders of opposing forces are played by Dave Shepard and Jerome Kisembe, who deliver the requisite menace and authority, and yet reveal their human sides. Though required to leave ammunition at the door, the cartridges are only a few steps away, and the weaponry remains ominous. Wisam Ghunelm portrays Mr. Harari, a frequent visitor to the brothel and the only Caucasian in the play, and creates an interesting character in his acting debut.

The entire cast is excellent, creating an ensemble that is persuasively credible, and the sense of being in that jungle bar oneself is achieved. Credit here must go to Tom Stell, artistic director of Obsidian, who directed the play, and to Denise O'Neal, assistant director. The lighting and sound designs by Mary Foler Faler are excellent, and the uncredited costumes and properties seem authentic and integrate well. This is a brilliant, fine-tuned, professional production of the highest order.

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The work was commissioned by Chicago's acclaimed Goodman Theatre, which sent Lynn Nottage and the original director Kate Whoriskey to the Congo to interview women for the play, which had an extended run at the Goodman and an acclaimed production at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. The play have ends on a positive note, which some have found formulaic, but Nottage's sensitive use of dialogue and keen understanding of relationships enhance the closing with charm, humor, and truth. Nottage has penned a play for the ages, with the central theme that of negotiation for survival, either negotiating for the sale of two "ruined" girls, or the value of a rough gem, or Mama's frequent greeting "I hope you don't think I'm being rude, but show me your money first." Even more importantly, she has created characters who are vivid and will linger long in your memory, perhaps forever.

The verdict:

Brilliant writing, wonderful direction and inspired casting surge together to create what may be the theatrical event of the year, a searing description of life in the war-torn Congo, with great actors etching vivid portraits of characters surviving with humor and love in the midst of chaos.

Ruined continues through March 22 at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak. For information or ticketing, call 832-889-7837 or contact www.obsidianartspace.org.

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