In Lynn Nottage’s play, Mama Nadi can be considered a heroic figure both because of her noble actions and because of her tragic flaws. Within the character of a brothel owner, the same woman embodies the hope and support she offers survivors and the capitalist exploitation of suffering. Nottage’s play largely interprets Bertholt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children for modern times in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Amidst a society undergoing violent upheavals, Mama Nadi’s establishment, while technically a brothel, also serves as a refuge. Aware that she cannot keep everyone safe, Mama Nadi offers its clients—be they soldiers, mercenaries, or rebels—temporary respite from the horrors of war. The women who work there, often broken and scarred from rape and other violent abuse, earn a living and have a place to stay. Nevertheless, Nottage makes clear, Mama Nadi still benefits from their vulnerability; she knows that her brothel is more of a last resort than a real alternative.
Her success, however, depends on serving as a model of detachment as much as on her business acumen. When she begins to soften, striking a bad deal with Christian to take in both Sophie and Salima, her personal indulgence begins to threaten her establishment’s security. When she explains that once she was a vulnerable girl who only later became Mama Nadi, the other characters as well as the audience see her in a different light. Finally, she must forgive Christian’s transgressions, allowing men as well as women into the inner sanctum, if she is to transcend the barriers that keep her from full humanity—even at the expense of what she had labored to build.