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Wide, wide war

Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer-winning "Ruined" is about African civil war, genocide, and, foremost, the assault on women.

'The war in my play is being fought on at least three fronts," says playwright Lynn Nottage.

She's speaking of Ruined, the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama now being produced by the Philadelphia Theatre Company at its Suzanne Roberts Theatre.

Ruined takes place in a Democratic Republic of the Congo torn for years by vicious civil war. But for Nottage, it's not just civil war.

"There's the war fought by government and industry over resources such as gold, copper, and coltan," Nottage says, speaking from her home in Brooklyn. "Then there's the residue of genocides in other countries, such as when the Interahamwe [paramilitary] from Rwanda came over and exported their war into Congo. "And then," she says, "there's the inexplicable, insidious war being waged over the bodies of women."

It was that third war, over women, their property, their bodies, that drew Nottage into a series of visits to Africa.

"I've long wanted to do a story about war from a woman's perspective," she says, "because women are 50 percent of the victims of war but only a fraction of the point of view we see in literature."

In 2004, on the first of her three Africa trips, "I spoke to a lot of Congolese women and was astonished to discover the extent to which they were being emotionally and sexually abused."

That was the genesis of Ruined, which premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 2008, moved to the Manhattan Theatre Club the next year, and won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize as well as an Obie.

It is set in the establishment of Mama Nadi, a tough businesswoman who insists that all the customers leave their guns at the door - literally. With swagger, tough talk, and tough dealing, she manages to hold her life together, despite the extreme precariousness of a woman's existence in wartime.

The poetry-loving traveling salesman Christian, who has a thing for Mama, persuades her to purchase two young women from him. Salima is slutty, but Sophie is sensitive, soulful - and "ruined," having been sexually abused and mutilated with a bayonet.

Like everyone in wartime, Mama is both exploited and an exploiter. (If there seems to be an echo of Brecht's Mother Courage here, it's intended - "that was one of my early models," Nottage says.) Her women are more than hostesses, as the male clientele know, and Mama is using them both to make a living and to make sure the soldiers fighting one another have a reason to spare her and her establishment from their ravages. "Survival is the only art I recognize," she says, which could be the motto of the play.

With Ruined, Nottage solidified her reputation as a writer interested in women and the socially marginalized. Brooklyn-born, she attended New York's High School of Music and Art, graduated from Brown University, earned her master of fine arts at the Yale School of Drama in 1989, and, after a stint working at Amnesty International, began writing serious drama.

Her first widely recognized play was Crumbs From the Table of Joy of 1995. Las Meninas (2002) studied race, gender, and body images among three misfits in the court of Louis XIV. But it was Intimate Apparel, her much-honored 2003 play about African American dressmakers at the turn of the last century, that served widest notice of her central interests. She won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005 and a MacArthur grant in 2007.

As for the war in Ruined, it is "about" everything and nothing. At one point, it's coltan - the mineral suddenly invaluable worldwide because of its use in cellphones and computers. Then it's about blood diamonds. Then gold. Then it's about who's biggest and toughest. Whom to trust? Jerome Kisembe? Commander Osembenga? It hardly matters. Soldiers cross the stage ranting about the other side, all savage, all benighted.

"Nobody is morally blameless," Nottage says. "I was interested in the ambiguous choices people are forced to make in wartime."

Despite her tough facade, Mama does keep a special eye out for Sophie and is hoping to give her a chance to escape. "Mama has the illusion she can hold the war at bay, but she's in denial that it will overtake her," Nottage says. Every woman will be called on, at some point, to give an account of herself.

Poetry plays an unexpected role. Christian writes it, good poetry, which he uses to woo Mama (to little effect). And the tunes sung at Mama's (music by Dominic Kanza) feature serious poetry that comments on the compounding ironies.

"Dominic and I worked it so that the music would be sort of the good-time music you might expect in a bar like Mama's, and that this would contrast with the weightiness of the poetry," Nottage says, inviting thoughts of Kurt Weill and, again, Brecht.

One other unexpected thing: the play's ending, which, less hopeless than some tough urban critics demanded, has been called sentimental. Nottage disagrees: It's "radical and confrontational, actually."

She says African writers and women tell her the ending is the best thing about the play. "Too often we take an exclusively Western view of Africa," she says. "But my play is not 'about Africa.' If anything, it's about women. My African friends and contacts see the ending taking an African view, a view of hope coming out of Africa. Which isn't that fashionable."

Nottage has workshopped the play with groups of women across the world, including one especially sympathetic group in Cambodia. "They got it right away," she says. "They totally saw what it was dealing with.

"I could have written the play to let the violence win, as a lot of people seemed to have expected," she says. "But that for me would have been the cop-out ending. I feel in my heart that Africa is at a renaissance moment creatively and intellectually, and I am hoping women can reap the benefits of it."