In times of war, �neutral� places like bars enjoy a precarious existence - the owner must make a living, so must be willing to serve both sides and walk a fine line between business and politics. This makes for riveting stories, when done right - after all, Casablanca and Cabaret are famous for their depictions of such situations.
We must now add another show to that list: Ruined, written by Lynn Nottage, and currently playing at the Unicorn Theatre, is just as riveting. It won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama tells the story of a small bar in the African Republic of Congo, which is undergoing a brutal civil war. While officially the war ended in 2002, there is still conflict there; a particularly horrendous conflict that very few of us in the West have been paying attention to.
Without giving too much away, the plot revolves around Mama Nadi (portrayed by veteran actress Nedra Dixon, in perhaps the greatest role of her career so far), who runs a small bar/whorehouse. Through an intricate network of connections, Mama Nadi takes in various supplies for her business - including young women. Immediately the audience is presented with a moral conflict - is Mama Nadi helping young women who are unable to find support elsewhere, or is she merely a human trafficker?
As both sides of the conflict draw nearer to her little establishment, Mama Nadi and the girls must keep both the government soldiers happy as well as the rebels - and their demands get higher with each passing day. Two young women, Sophie and Salima, are dropped off unceremoniously at the bar, and world-weary Josephine is tasked with making them presentable to the men.
Ruined is a tense drama, and even when leavened with some humor, the sense of menace never really leaves. The very title of the play refers to the practice of the rape and sexual mutilation of women as a way to prevent villages from continuing to survive. This little establishment captures all the moral ambiguity, desperation, and violence that is found in the greater world, and the audience begins to realize that being �ruined� has more than one meaning.
The set of the show is brilliantly done; from the light misty fog to the sounds of tropical birds surrounding you, the audience is immersed into the world of the play before it even starts.
The cast is breathtaking. Nedra Dixon is a revelation in her role of Mama Nadi, and she pours her soul into the part. Also notable is the performance of Chioma Anyanwu as Josephine - I saw her several years ago in The Women of Brewster Place, and have been waiting for her return ever since. Not to be outdone, however, the men are also strong enough to hold their own against the powerful female cast. Walter Coppage gives perhaps his most nuanced performance I�ve seen as Christian, and Tosin Morohunfola is riveting as the guilt-ridden (and rain-soaked) Fortune, looking for the wife that he brutally rejected.
Ruined is not a relaxing show. It�s hard to always tell the victim apart from the perpetrator. It�s a tense, depressing, and existentially alarming look at people in desperate situations doing terrible things to each other in the name of justice and love. While the show does acknowledge the existence of more positive emotions like hope and compassion, those emotions have an insubstantial, vulnerable position in human hearts. In other words, this show is about real life.
There are many reasons to see this show - as a riveting story, a primer on real current events, and a collection of powerhouse performances. Pick your reason, and then go.
Ruined runs through May 1 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. For tickets visit: www.unicorntheatre.org.

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