Despite multi-colored Christmas lights draped over the stage and set, “Ruined” is anything but a cheery play. The play written by Lynn Nottage highlights the sexual violence occurring in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the country’s civil war. Focusing on the lives of Mama, played by Racheal Odusanya ’17 the owner of a brothel, and two of the women she buys as prostitutes, “Ruined” shows the constant fear, insecurity and lack of control experience by women in this world. The play, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama, was presented by Brandeis Players in the Shapiro Campus Center Theater this past weekend. 

The show is centered in Mama’s House, a bar and “whore house” frequented by travelers, salesmen and soldiers. The play picks up as Mama barters with salesman Christian (Karekin Johnson ’19) for unknown goods amid friendly banter and jokes. The grisly tone of the show is set once it becomes clear that they are bargaining not over the prices of beer, cotton or guns, but rather over girls. 

Though hesitant to take in more girls, Mama agrees, and she soon becomes angry when she discovers that one of the girls, Sophie (Kristen Taylor ’17), is “ruined” because sexual violence has mutilated her genitals. In the events that follow, both girls are forced to adjust to life at Mama’s House, which means learning to do whatever sexual and nonsexual deeds will appease drunken governmental and rebel soldiers. 

The other prostitute, Salima (Bernice Appiah ’18), has to decide whether or not to face her abusive husband, who comes looking for her. The story, though slow-moving and lacking a build-up to a climactic end, presents a full-fledged vision of the world these women face. Security is a non-existent concept — every moment is lived in uncertainty. For many women, prostitution is the only possible source of income. For others, it is also the solution to leaving behind worse situations, and yet, it still doesn’t guarantee prevention of sexual assault. “Ruined” draws on the aggravation of the unjust powerlessness of these women to alter their situations. 

Although the world in the play is one dominated by men, and the cast consists mostly of men, the performances of the female characters were the most powerful. Appiah’s recounting of being traumatically raped by soldiers in her own village while her baby watched was delivered heart-wrenchingly. Taylor brought an extra layer of authenticity to the show with Sophie’s live singing at Mama’s House. Sophie has to sing at the bar to entertain since she is unable to be a prostitute. 

But it was Odusanya whose performance truly stood out — she brought a great spirit to Mama as a clever negotiator who manages to run her business all by herself while caring the best that she can for her girls. Although Mama is tough and has uncompassionate moments, it was evident that this was a necessary skin to have in order to survive on her own. Beyond the harshness, Odusanya gave the character a kindness and depth that made it difficult not to fully empathize with her. She also perfectly delivered the majority of the few comedic moments of the play. 

Mama, Salima and Sophie, despite their hardships, show a great strength and perseverance. Director Oyemen Ehikhamhen ’17 says about the play in the Director’s Note, “It allows us to open our eyes to issues that are going on in a part of the world that there is an international responsibility for.

 It showcases a war within a war; a civil war and a war on women. Amidst all of the trauma, ‘Ruined’ leaves the audience with hope.”