Act 1, Scene 1
Ruined takes place in a mining town in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As the first scene opens, the audience hears sounds of the rainforest in the background.
Mama Nadi and Christian sit at a table in the bar and brothel that Mama owns; both are in their early forties and act flirtatiously with each other. Mama, the madam of the establishment, is attractive, with “an arrogant stride and majestic air.” Christian, a traveling salesman, is dressed in a worn, once-stylish suit. He is “perpetually cheerful” yet “worn down by hard living on the road.”
Mama scolds Christian for being three weeks late with her order of soap, cigarettes, and condoms. Christian explains that it is nearly impossible to travel the roads, but Mama only responds by requesting her lipstick. Christian, annoyed at her insistence after the difficult conditions he has endured, nevertheless takes the lipstick out of his pocket, playfully threatening to give it to Josephine, one of Mama’s girls. Mama tries on the color, admiring herself in a broken mirror. Christian teases that she wants a husband, to which she replies, “Like a hole in my head.” He recites a love poem, and Mama makes peace by giving him some peanuts. She tempts him with a beer, which he refuses, reminding her that he has not had alcohol in four years.
Hearing a parrot’s squawk, Christian spots a covered birdcage. Mama tells him the bird belonged to Old Papa and only speaks Pygmy, so no one can communicate with it. As she explains that she plans to sell the parrot because she has no use for it, Christian puts his finger in the cage only to have the parrot bite him. Mama laughs, chiding him for bothering the bird. She then asks what else Christian has brought her, to which he responds, “Three.”
The two begin to bargain about a price; neither mentions what the merchandise is, as both seem to understand. Mama only wants to purchase one, but Christian reminds her how difficult it was for him to get here. Finally agreeing on a price of twenty, Christian requests another cold soda while he goes out to the truck to retrieve Mama’s purchase. He returns with two cartons of cigarettes and two women. Sophie is a beautiful young woman with a defiant look and walks as if in pain, and Salima is a peasant woman whose face has a worn-out appearance.
Mama surveys the women and points to Sophie, reminding Christian that she only wants to purchase one. Christian is willing to give them both for the price of one. Mama is annoyed because she cannot take on the responsibility of feeding both women.
Mama sends the girls to wash up, and Christian explains that Salima was a captive concubine of rebel soldiers for five months. Her village would not allow her to return after her ordeal. Mama then inquires about Sophie, and Christian responds that she is “ruined.” Mama becomes angry at this revelation. Christian quickly tries to calm her, saying Sophie will be a hard worker. Mama is upset that Sophie is “damaged,” and Christian explains her story. Soldiers “did ungodly things to the child,” and she has nowhere else to go. Mama continues to protest, and Christian continues to plead for Sophie. He tells her many miners will be coming to town and they will like Sophie, so she’ll be good for business.
Christian reminds Mama that he has done a lot for her; she angrily retorts that she feeds eight women even though other people are starving. She questions...
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why Sophie is so important, and finally Christian reveals that Sophie is his niece. To convince her, he offers chocolate, which is not easy to procure.
When Sophie enters the room, Mama reconsiders as she talks to her. She asks if the soldiers hurt her badly and questions if she can sing any popular songs. Sophie replies yes to both questions. Mama instructs Christian to get the chocolate and asks Sophie if she knows what type of place she is in. Sophie says she thinks she knows, and Mama applies red lipstick to Sophie’s lips. Mama explains that she provides her girls with food, clothing, and a place to live. In return, she expects them to behave themselves and remain clean. She inquires if Sophie understands, and when Sophie nods her head, Mama gives the girl a glass of liquor to help with her pain. As Sophie drinks, Mama warns her not to become too dependent on liquor, as she has “no tolerance for sloppiness.”
Christian enters with the chocolate, which he describes as imported and handmade. Mama offers Sophie a chocolate, then takes one herself. She’s reminded of her mother, who used to take her and her brothers to Kisangani, buy them caramels, and leave them by the river while she “visited with uncles.” The treats were insurance that the children would not tell Old Papa about what his daughter was doing.
Mama denies Christian’s request for a chocolate, and Sophie is amused. Christian chides her, reminding her that he is a good uncle who did not leave her to die. He tells her to be a good girl, and she promises she will.
Act 1, Scene 2
A month after the events of act 1, scene 1, rebel soldiers drink at the bar, laughing loudly and leering at Salima, who is playing pool. Sophie sings and Josephine dances to entertain the men, who give tips to the women. A soldier drunkenly calls to Sophie, who ignores him; Mama tells him he needs money to get her attention. After complaining about the expensive beer, he takes out a cloth with pieces of ore wrapped in it. He tells Mama he got the ore from a miner after they chased the miners away. Mr. Harari, a diamond merchant, listens to the conversation. Mama laughs and tells the soldier that the ore is worth little.
The soldier moves toward Sophie, claiming he will “teach her manners!” Mama defuses the situation by accepting the ore and asking Salima to dance with him. When Sophie finishes her song, Mr. Harari tips her. Mama places the ore inside a lockbox hidden under the counter.
Mr. Harari comments on Sophie’s beauty; Josephine responds that Sophie is broken and bad luck.
Mr. Harari chides Mama for tricking the soldier into thinking the ore was worthless when it’s actually quite valuable. He asks her who is worse, the soldier or Mama? She retorts that she is not a thief, just craftier than Mr. Harari because she has secured the ore.
Mama shows Mr. Harari a collection of diamonds; he tells her they’re worthless, except for a raw diamond. She refuses to sell it, because she is holding it for someone. She tells him he reminds her of her father, who lost his farm to a white man with a piece of paper. When she was eleven years old, the man showed up at the door with a paper claiming he was the rightful owner of Old Papa’s land. Mama wonders how a woman like her can acquire her own land and a paper that says she owns it.
Josephine returns and showers attention on Mr. Harari. Kisembe loudly shouts that he cannot get mobile phone service, prompting Mr. Harari to question his identity. Josephine explains that Jerome Kisembe leads the rebel militia and has great power. She claims a sorcerer protects Kisembe from bullets and that he has no fear.
Meanwhile, the soldier who is dancing with Salima bites her neck. She runs away from him, but Mama tells her to go back. Salima complains to Sophie that the soldier is a filthy dog, but Sophie says she’ll sing Salima’s favorite song if she follows Mama’s orders. Salima returns, Sophie sings, and Josephine dances. Mama watches Salima carefully.