What theater can do that the news can’t

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Celeste Jones, Regina Marie Williams, and Bruce Young in “Ruined” at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. Photo by Ann Marsden.

Recently I had the opportunity to fill in for Kerri Miller as host of Midmorning. The two-hour talk show is always a challenge, particularly because it involves reading up on topics I don’t usually cover. One of those hours concerned the use of rape as a weapon in wartime, prompted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Certainly, I thought, this is as far from my arts beat as it gets.

Well, my arts reporting may not have prepared me to talk about the Congo, but that hour on Midmorning did help me to better understand the urgency behind Mixed Blood Theatre’s latest production “Ruined.”

“Ruined” tells the story of women in a brothel in the Congo, and the amazing strength it takes to simply survive in a world where rape and murder is commonplace. The play, by Lynn Nottage (the playwright behind “Intimate Apparel” and “Fabulation or, the Re-Education of Undine”), premiered a year ago in Chicago, and opened to rave reviews off-Broadway this past February.

The play accomplishes something that the news can’t. Let me explain.

We talked for an hour on Midmorning with experts in the field about the challenges surrounding preventing rape during war. Now it’s likely many people turned off their radios at the mention of the word “rape.” It’s a difficult topic that’s hard to talk about. Those brave souls who did tune in for the full hour learned a lot of facts, and were exposed to some new ideas.

What they did not learn was the name of a single woman affected by this crisis, or her particular story.

“Ruined” uses theater to take you to the Congo, introduce you to the women there, and teach you what if feels like to endure day in, day out, life under civil war. Through words, images, music and dance, the play lures people in with entertainment, and then convinces them to care. Sneaky, no?

Ben Brantley writes in his review of the Manhattan Theater Club’s production for the New York Times:

…precisely because of its artistic caution, “Ruined” is likely to reach audiences averse to more adventurous, confrontational theater. And people who might ordinarily look away from horror stories of distant wars may well find themselves bound in empathy to the unthinkably abused women that Ms. Nottage and the excellent actresses here have shaped with such care and warmth.

If you make it to Mixed Blood Theatre’s production of “Ruined” (which opens tonight and runs through November 22) be prepared to be compelled by some great storytelling. And be prepared to care.

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