Radical Empathy and Respect: Ruined Talkback




Ruined color - Li Yang
Li Yang

The play Ruined takes on issues that are hard enough to acknowledge and talk about, let alone see portrayed on stage. Lincoln Center Theater chose an undertaking of staggering proportions in bringing this play to its stage. After one of the performances, the director, actors and crew members sat down to talk about how they accomplished this and overcame difficulties.

The first commenter noted how this play gave a voice to the women of the Eastern Congo. He emphasized that the stereotypical conceptions of Africa such as drums or masks were not featured in the show, which instead focused on the individual characters. These characters included women who were taking care of their property and violence around them.  During war or peace these were women who would protect what belonged to them. He also mentioned how in his work on a documentary was similar to the play. There were weeks when he had to stop because he could not cope with the material. This play is shocking but the reality is much worse and more than any audience could handle.

The director, Isis Misdary, introduced the play as “deceptively simple.”She noted how the play portrayed the consequences of the worlds of women and men colliding. Savannah Whetsell, the assistant director, followed up with insight on how the play demands an emotional reaction from the audience, which is out of place with the content of the play. The emotions in Ruined are not linear and often are not expressed by the characters. This suppression of emotion is the only chance the characters have to survive. Isis Misdary also gave some background information on the set, describing how it was inspired by a photo from Ghana. She wanted a way to reflect the presence of the war and the fact that women are making money off the war without overwhelming the other subjects of the play. The army vehicle used for the set is authentic.

The actors were asked about their feelings on the sensitive nature of the content of Ruined. The first to speak was Taylor Armstrong Purdee who played “Fortune.” He explained that the honesty among the actors had helped them to deal with the subject matter of rape and exploitation. He and the other actors had been told at the beginning by the costume director that “This is real. Deal with it.” And so they did. The actors watched documentaries on the Congo to understand the situation. Josh T. Tarpaw who played “Osembenga” and “Kisembe” explained that the issues are uncomfortable so the play will be uncomfortable. While there is no way around this, it encourages the audience to ask questions and to gain a better understanding of the conflict in the Congo and its effect on the people who live there.

Isis Misdary, from the beginning, asked that the cast be “radically empathetic” and push themselves far beyond their comfort level to tell this story. One young woman, Mayaa Boateng, who played the character “Salima,” brought up a personal challenge for her as an actress to play a role where she had to give men control over her body. She struggled with this because of the respect she has for herself, but in the end she was able to come to terms with it by reminding herself that she is a storyteller. Later, Ruben De’Paris, who played several supporting roles, talked about the relationship between the men and women of the cast off the stage. He explained that the men treated the women with nothing but respect and that has made it easier to deal with the lack of respect among the characters they portray.

In only 17 days of rehearsal, the cast and crew of Ruined delved into a world completely foreign from their own and staged a complex and emotional play. This was accomplished by young actors, men and women who are only in their early twenties. Isis Misdary ended the evening on a serious note by pointing out that this disaster is man-made and saying “I caused it.” A major reason for the turmoil in the Congo is the presence of a mineral necessary for manufacturing smartphones. The director, as a smartphone user, acknowledged that this choice meant she was responsible for the issues in this play. She encouraged the audience to use their phones in a positive way and spread the word about the Congo.