by Lynn Nottage

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What themes does Lynn Nottage develop in Ruined and how does she do so?

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Lynn Nottage explores several important ideas in the play Ruined, and three themes that stand out include: rape as a tool, changing definitions of masculinity, and resilience.

The significance of rape is clear in the fact that every female character in the play is affected by sexual violence; they...

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all live with either a physical injury to their bodies or a psychological injury to their minds, or both. Sophie, Salima, and Mama Nadi all must endure the shame of their experience, as well as the pain and the likelihood that they are all unable to have children. That the soldiers used rape as a tool to damage both individuals as well as the prospects of a future generation suggests a particularly male form of ruthlessness that perpetually threatens the survival of these women.

The men in the play all represent varying notions of masculinity. There is the hyper-masculinity of the strongmen, who easily resort to violence to get their way, as well as the sensitive, emotional side of masculinity represented by Christian. Fortune and Mr. Harari both demonstrate the potential of men to disappoint women who care for them, and the nameless soldiers in the cast represent the general tendency of men to act on their aggressive feelings during times of war.

Mama Nadi is one character in particular whose resilience is striking. Though she is self-serving and harsh at times throughout the play, by the end of the play, she shows a vulnerable side, revealing a kind of strength in her acceptance of Christian's affection. Her resilience ends up helping her heal from past physical and emotional wounds, ending the play on a positive and hopeful note.

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In developing Ruined, a play about the horrors of the Congolese Wars in the African nation of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lynn Nottage decided to narrow her focus: "If I tried to take on the whole thing, it would be I decided to focus on one war: the war against women." Centered around Mama Nadi's brothel in a rural corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ruined explores themes of survival, hope, and tribal heritage through the lens of women's experience of war.

The women in Ruined, though they are Nottage's focus, are not portrayed as wholly good. The character of Mama Nadi, for example, could be viewed as a negative figure. She runs a brothel where she sells sex to Congolese soldiers on both sides of the conflict, seemingly immune to the moral ambiguity of such work. Mama's primary focus is her business, not the war. At the same time, Mama Nadi provides the only real refuge for women who have been forced from their communities after experiencing rape. She is an exemplar of survival herself and provides opportunities for survival for other women. Through the character of Mama, Nottage dives into the complexity of what it means to survive in a violent, immoral world.

Although the play is set in a rural area, nature plays a very small role in the play. Even so, there is a gray parrot who is frequently mentioned by Mama Nadi. Mama explains that the parrot used to belong to Old Papa Batunga, the last of his tribe. Now, the parrot, who speaks pygmy, is the only remaining voice of the tribe.

In many societies, women are considered the carriers of history; in other words, in their jobs as mothers and caretakers, they pass the cultural memories of their people onto the next generation. In Ruined, the women also share songs and stories with one another and with the visitors of the brothel, bearing their history through cultural expression. In wartime, then, attacking women is a way to attack a culture. The women in Ruined, much like the gray parrot Nottage describes, are bearers of the community's culture and history—the final link to a heritage that the war has set out to destroy.

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Lynn Nottage's play Ruined is set during the bloody Congolese Civil Wars that started during the year 1996 and progressed until 2003 in the Central African country called the Democratic Republic of the Congo, previously called Zaire. The play captures a small fraction of the violence experienced during the war, a war that took 5.4 million lives. It especially captures how the war "ruined" the lives of millions.
One important theme in the play concerns the destruction of African tribal life due to the civil wars. The theme is particularly expressed through the recurring motif of a gray parrot that belonged to Old Papa Batunga before he died. Though the play is set in a very rural area, the parrot is the only direct connection the play has to nature. The absence of nature helps to underscore the theme of the destruction of tribal life. More importantly, as Mama informs us early on in the play, the parrot "speaks pygmy," and "Old Papa was the last of his tribe. That stupid bird was the only thing he had left to talk to." (p. 7) Hence, the bird only speaks pygmy because pygmy was the only language Old Papa could speak; plus, Old Papa was the last remaining member of his tribe, the only remaining person who actually could speak pygmy. Therefore, we see that both the pygmy-speaking parrot and the death of Old Papa underscore the theme of the destruction of tribal life since Old Papa's tribe was destroyed by the wars.

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