The Power of Empathy in Lynn Nottage’s Ruined

Ruined, a 2009 play by Lynn Nottage, is set in a small mining town in the province of Ituri, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The play centres on Mama Nadi, a determined survivor of the Ituri Conflict and the First and Second Congo Wars, as well as the shrewd owner of a local bar and brothel. We meet Sophie, Salima, and Josephine, three young women who have endured unspeakable violence and loss in the conflict and now work for Mama Nadi. In 2004 and 2005, Nottage travelled to Uganda to conduct interviews with Congolese women who had crossed the border to escape the violence in the DRC. In their determination to go on record, these survivors courageously shared with Nottage their “raw and ugly tales of sexual violence and torture at the hands of both Rebel and Government militias” (Nottage). The women’s painful testimony inspired Ruined and its characters.

Ruined is a call to action as much as it is a beautiful and haunting work of drama. Nottage seeks to move her audience to help Congolese women in any way they can—whether it be by donating directly to the charities and human rights groups operating in the DRC or by raising more awareness about the war being waged on Congolese women’s bodies. Nottage’s effectiveness lies in the empathetic construction of her characters. She has a commitment to accuracy rooted in her compassion for the women she interviewed. Nottage allows her characters the space to testify to their traumas without constructing them merely as the sum of these traumas. Instead, her characters carry the living spirits of the women she has interviewed—women with whom the audience can now connect themselves.

I have no doubt that Nottage’s identity as an African American woman helped her to depict the survivors accurately and responsibly. Globally, black women are capable of sharing an emotional proximity, a depth of feeling that can transcend class, nationality, and even ethnicity. There is a bond there that outsiders simply cannot understand. And this bond need not be understood, but simply appreciated, because it is clearly and undeniably a beautiful thing.


Nottage, Lynn. Ruined. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2009. Print.