by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Kate Whoriskey
Manhattan Theatre Club

Reviewed by David Spencer

In an era in which a Democratic, Afro-American President shows every sign of taking the tarnish off America’s reputation as leader of the free world, it is somehow fitting that a play by a female, likewise Afro-American dramatist, set in the Congo, has the potential to be recognized as a Great American Play. It’s as richly imagined and colorfully populated as any of the signature Great American Plays—like Streetcar or Salesman or Iceman or Raisin in the Sun or, yes, I’ll add ‘em, The Farnsworth Invention, and Conversations with My Father, among others—with characters potentially as unique and potentially iconic, who occupy a universe, and a locale within, as imprintably distinct, to play out a story with a similar range of triumph and tragedy in extremis. What makes the play distinctly American, despite its Comgo setting, is its quest to shine a light on a component of the decade-long civil war still raging there—the undeclared but just as palpable war against women—speaking out on behalf a country that can't speak out for itself.

                  The specific and sole locale of the play is Mama’s Place, which is, as the program describes it, “a bar in a small mining town in the Ituri Rainforest, Democratic Republic of Congo.”

                  A certain irony starts with that very description, because whose democracy is up for grabs. With violent rebel insurgencies and constantly shifting power bases having become the absurdly common order of the day, one of the local businessmen, Mr. Harari (the only white character in the play, portrayed by Tom Mardarosian) sums up the situation by saying, “I never know what hand to grease except the one in front of me.”

                  As the play starts, we meet Mama Nadi (Saida Arrika Ekulona), bargaining with one of her goods suppliers, the thin, Fanta-drinking Christian (Russell Gebert Jones); after a while comes the chilling realization that they are bargaining over human beings—for Mama’s place is not only a bar, it is a bordello. And it is her crude version of Switzerland in the sense that all are welcome from any side of any conflict, the only rule being you turn in your weapons’ ammo clips upon entry. (On a technical note this isn’t precisely as thorough a precaution as it may sound; an automatic gun stores a round in the chamber. But most in the audience don’t realize that [does Ms. Nottage, I wonder?] and the play never begs the question.) It’s hard to label Mama and Christian as villains though, as the girls they take on are disenfranchised, with nowhere else to go. In particular, one of the girls Christian is trying to unload is his niece, Sophie (Condola Rashad), and at first Mama wants no part of her, because the kind of abuse she has suffered at the hand of soldiers (more barbaric than I care to describe, though the play fills you in) has left her “ruined” and useless for sex. But because Sophie is a good worker, and a gifted singer, Mama reluctantly takes her on along with Salina (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) who, as things develop, proves to be sexually “usable” but less-than-Zen about the                    body-as-commodity part of the equation.

                  While the threads of intertwining stories develop in non-schematic ways, the overall trajectory of the play is, of course, inevitable—charting the increasing difficulty of Mama’s Place to remain a precarious “safe house” as the war raging outside moves in closer and becomes more volatile…

                  A director new to me, Kate Whoriskey, handles both the physical and thematic complexities/subtleties with the assurance of a “brand name” veteran, and may prove to be one, if this sample of her work represents the consistent quality of her output. And the cast (those mentioned above and others as soldiers and miners in the conflict) is uniformly excellent under her guidance.

                  Something similar may be said of the playwright too. Lynn Nottage, usually at least a capable dramatist, in my experience of her work, seems, at least for this play, to be demonstrating an artistic growth spurt—and one so profound that, if this play isn’t just an unusually inspired one-off, but rather the beginning of an ongoing surge, it will likely earn her a well-deserved place in the circle of major theatrical voices.

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