by Lynn Nottage

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Who are the antagonist and protagonist in Ruined?

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Mama Nadi is the protagonist, and the war is the antagonist.

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Lynn Nottage’s is set within a war-torn country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The bar-and-brothel that Mama Nadi operates functions as a refuge from the near-chaos of the world beyond its doors. Mama Nadi is the protagonist, and the strength of Nottage’s characterization lies in the complexity of the woman’s motives and behaviors. Many of the women who work there have nowhere else to go, so to some extent Mama Nadi functions in a protective maternal capacity. However, she employs the women as sex workers, so her relationship to them can also be understood as exploitative. She is an effective protagonist because of, not despite, the moral ambiguity of her position.

To some extent, the war is the antagonist. Together with the violent conflict, the underlying social problems that created the war all have the capacity to damage—or even ruin, as the title implies—the character’s lives. The tremendous social violence is personified by the soldiers on both sides. Rape and murder are two of the horrors the characters discuss.

The conflict between the government and rebel soldiers largely takes place outside Mama Nadi’s place. When the soldiers enter, she has ground rules for their behavior; for example, she makes Commander Osembenga leave his bullets at the door. The small degree of safety available within the brothel is temporary and perhaps illusory. Although Osembenga is known to be a brutal killer, inside the brothel he is another customer whom Mama Nadi and her girls must satisfy.

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An argument could be made that the antagonist and protagonist of Nottage's Ruined relates to the condition of power.  Those who are in the position of militaristic or temporal notions of power can be seen as antagonistic, while those who must suffer under such horrific conditions are the protagonists.  Power goes to the very basis of demarcating characterizations of those who can be seen as protagonist and antagonist.

Mama Nadi can be seen as a protagonist because of the power dynamics that exist around her.  While she is a madam, she believes that what she does helps to offset the world outside where power is wielded in a brutal manner.  Mama understands that the girls who come to her establishment have been deemed "ruined."  This condition is one where power has inflicted itself on the girls and made them unable to return home.  Mama is the protagonist because of her role as buffer, one who tries to navigate this valence.  She seeks to negotiate                   the world that takes what it wants, in particular from women, while preserving some semblance of a home for girls who need it.  When Salima says, “You will not fight your battles on my body anymore," it reflects the world that Mama Nadi strives to negotiate.  It is a world where women are violated, where political revolution is the pretext for horrific abuses of power, and one where there is an absence of justice and fairness.  Mama is the protagonist because she serves as "the chief actor" who strives to offer the hope of restoration and redemption in a world devoid of it.

Mama's condition as protagonist sets up a world where most of it serves an antagonistic function. In this construction, the "rival" is a setting in which individuals with power seek to exploit those without it.  For example, the soldiers in the drama could operate as antagonist.  Commander Osembenga is not interested in equality or a sense of fairness, as much as he is rooting out the rebels and exerting his power.  He does not hesitate to use force in obtaining what he wants.  This is reflected in how he treats the girls in Mama's establishment.  He and his men often engage in assaulting behavior towards them because they can.  The rebel soldiers who kept Salima as their concubine after raping her would be another example of an antagonist.  In both of these conditions, individuals with power are antagonistic because they demonstrate their control over people, particularly women, who lack power and control over their own lives.  The political context has given power to individuals who abuse it in their abuse of women.  Another example of this would be Fortune's village, who shunned her as "ruined" because she was violated by rebel soldiers.  Salima sees Fortune in an antagonistic light, as well, because she perceived him to support his village's position.  Accordingly, the antagonist is one who does not actively support those who lack power.  The antagonistic forces of Nottage's drama are individuals who compete with the restorative force of Mama.  Their imposition of power on those who lack voice make them antagonists to a drama where power and its valences become defining elements.

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