Don’t let the sparkly Christmas lights that line the stage fool you. They may brighten up the brothel, seeming to shroud the stage in an ethereal glow, but as anyone who watched the premiere of Brandeis’ Player’s “Ruined” knows, that initial multi-colored lighting is a little deceiving. Not a happy-go-lucky performance, “Ruined” contemplates dark themes—an advisory in the pamphlet warns against self-harm, violence and alcohol abuse, all of which are evidenced throughout the play—and is very telling of the brutal realities that women who live in the Democratic Republic of Congo face.
As the director Oyemen Ehikhamhen ’17 rather aptly describes, “The play is an unapologetic and raw in the discomfort of viewers who too often look away from horror stories of distant wars. Instead, ‘Ruined’ provides real content and genuine hope that the future of distant ‘strangers’ are in our hands.”
Written by Lynn Nottage, “Ruined” tells the story of Mama, played by Racheal Odusanya ’17, a businesswoman who takes two young women, named Sophie (Kristen Taylor ’17) and Salima (Bernice Appiah ’18), under her wing in the midst of political turmoil and economic strife. Though they are subjected to servitude and are forced into prostitution, there is an understanding that their current circumstance is the best possible outcome. Sophia and Salima try to make the best of their situation, calling upon their individual talents—Sophie is a powerful singer—to get them through.
The standout of the performance, Odusanya playing Mama, made a tremendous impression on the stage from start to finish, the epitome of a professional completely invested in her craft. Without a doubt the best of the night, Odusanya’s delivery couldn’t have been any more emotional and relatable. Mama’s sassy persona, strong personality and witty dialogue all worked together to create one of the most memorable characters that Brandeis’ theater has seen in quite a while. To add to that praise, Odusanya’s understanding of Mama is evident in her ability to nuance her character, avoiding complete demonization while also making questionable decisions. She, like all of us, is just another person trying to navigate through a difficult circumstance and uses her wiles to maintain some sense of control in a world where men walk in her pleasure house with an automatic gun strapped to their waists.
Appiah was able to relate a range of acting ability that is uncanny given the few scenes that she makes an appearance in, especially in the second act. Her portrayal of Salima is particularly diverse and life-like, as her initial appearance shows her as a vulnerable, soft-spoken and very much broken individual, yet upon subsequent scenes she relates a whole other side that is hauntingly desperate, but also incredibly powerful at the same time. Her monologue is marked for its conveyance of biting emotion and suffering.
Despite minor jitters in the opening performance, on Thursday, Nov. 5 in the SCC Theater, “Ruined” couldn’t have been performed more flawlessly and with such laudable grace. The blood, sweat and tears of the performers showed throughout as performers took a chance and fully propelled themselves into the role, even if that entailed yelling, groping another cast member or having an emotional breakdown. Though they weren’t always as successful at eliciting an emotional response in the way they intended, these short intervals gave audience members a sense of comic relief that was very much necessary.
The most powerful performances are the ones that force the audience to recognize a situation, a horrible reality, that they would prefer to ignore. Despite its optimistic ending that runs counter to the rest of the subject matter in “Ruined,” the show is a fascinating performance that appeals to a variety of viewers; if they’re looking for a soap opera, drama or romance, “Ruined” has it all.
If you couldn’t make the premiere of “Ruined” you can see it Friday, Nov. 6 at 8 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 7 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 8 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5 for regular admission and $3 with a Brandeis ID.