Hollow humanitarianism: A review of Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined”

By Mohammad T.

On Friday night, I attended one of the closing showings of “Ruined” at the Berkeley Rep Theater, a play written by Lynn Nottage about the plight of women during the Democratic Republic of Congo’s civil war. I was moved enough by the play, and the one rather profound weaknesses of that play, to write up a short piece on it. I don’t intend to write a review of the play (you can find those here, here, and here), nor do I intend to share insights about the historical, social, and political background of the situation that the play has a conversation with. Instead, I want to discuss the play in terms of how it contributes to a problem that I believe infects the way we interact with situations such as the DRC’s.

“Ruined” takes place exclusively in a Congolese brothel owned and operated by Mama Nadi, a shrewd, proud single woman who has seen quite a lot during her life. The story revolves around her life keeping up this bar and brothel, and how her business becomes a flashpoint in the armed conflict between rebel groups and the government. At her brothel, Mama Nadi houses, clothes, and feeds a number of girls-turned-prostitutes who, in return, dance, sing, and sleep with Mama Nadi’s clientele (mostly miners and soldiers passing through). The story opens with Mama Nadi accepting from a salesmen friend of hers two young women into her brothel: Sophie and Salima. Both have come from a harrowing past. Sophie had been the victim of a violent rape at the hands of bayonet-wielding men that had left her for dead. Salima was a married mother of an infant girl who was the victim of rape and kidnapping after having been snatched from her back yard one morning when her husband went off to town. Their lives literally and figuratively ruined from the encounter, they are sold into Mama Nadi’s house as prostitutes in exchange from shelter from the sordid world that had caused them so much pain.

The play revolves around these women and their interactions with minors and men who frequent the bar, and it evolves into a story about female survival of and resistance to war, patriarchy, and sexual violence. This was both the import, and the curse, of “Ruined.”

A technically strong play, the writing, the staging, the music, and the production were quite exquisite and powerful – what I would expect from a critically acclaimed, Pullitzer Prize-winning play. The problem, though, was in the politics; or, rather, the lack thereof. The failing of “Ruined” was that it attempted to expose to its audience the human, gendered suffering of those caught in the middle of war, yet it did so by ultimately trivializing that same experience and by not allowing its audience to understand quite what was at stake for those who have lived in the DRC.

This leads me to my thesis. “Ruined” was a typical White Liberal’s play: all of the guilt and charity, with none of the substance or courage. “Ruined” is an exemplar of how liberal humanitarianism operates in the West. It provides a narratively gripping story of humanitarian despair, yet categorically refuses to engage in – and actually whitewashes over – the normative questions about how and why that despair emerges.

Social misery does not occur as a product of humanity’s inherent evil. With few exceptions, no one is born a violent murderer or sexual criminal. We do not have to condone shameless acts that inflict social suffering in order for us to attempt to understand why people engage in them. For that reason, saying “terrorists” are pathologically wired to hate freedom and to blow themselves up in pursuit of jihad is facile and offensive. There are social conditions that lead otherwise emotionally stable and intellectually rational people to choose to act with brazen recklessness and evil toward others. The only way we can attempt to lift ourselves and our neighbors out of social misery is by understanding what those conditions are that lead those among us to commit horrible acts, and how those actors themselves respond to these conditions.

“Ruined” both refuses to engage in these two questions and, by implication, suggests that these are the wrong questions to ask. Though the audience understands through a few lines here and there some of the social and political dynamics that have given rise to such a precarious situation for the play’s female protagonists, it does so with trite rhetoric and facile explanations of the context. The play is never political, yet it features these women caught between two bands of soldiers – government soldiers and organized rebels (both intentionally played by the same set of male actors). The women, chief among them Mama Nadi, understand these men as essentially the same evil: they are both violent, they both commit grave atrocities on women, they both are untrustworthy, and they both are good only for the cash they infuse her brothels with. There is no difference between the two.

Indeed, the play makes it one of its goals to point how similar the two groups of soldiers actually are. The rebel soldiers, in one scene after the play’s intermission, enter the brothel and make way for the rebel leader to give a rousing speech about their cause: he cites government abuse, the pillaging of land, and the arbitrary killing of many civilians as the reason why his rag-tag group of heroic resisters have taken up arms to fight a just war. Shortly after the rebels leave, the government commander and his men enter the brothel, and the commander himself gives a rhetorically-trite speech about the rebels’ indignity for the rule of law, their disregard for human life, and their rampant drug and alcohol abuse. Neither are sympathetic – both are menacing, guilty of violence, and ultimately responsible for the misery that has been thrust upon the women in the brothel. The play gives us their motivations in mere platitudes: the rebels with their rhetoric justifying armed resistance, and the government with their truisms about enforcing the rule of law and about clamping down on thuggery and hooliganism. Both groups are rhetorically bankrupt, uninteresting, and guilty. The solution is a genuine compassion for the plight of the victims and a genuine distrust of political actors – that is, the solution is classic humanitarianism.

Yet this picture can’t be true, can it? I don’t claim to know very much about the DRC, but I refuse to believe that the parties to the civil (or any civil war) can be both reduced to such caricature and to moral equivalency. Rebels and government forces cannot be the same. They cannot be both as blameworthy as the other. Sure, they can both be guilty of devastation and criminality, but for different reasons and judged through different moral standards. The Irish Republican Army was guilty of perpetrating devastating acts of violence, but they were not in the same shoes as the British Army. Regardless of what we think about either the IRA or the British Army, we cannot think the same thing about both of them. That would be impossible, for that betrays their distinct positionality vis-à-vis Irish society. The same must necessarily be true in the DRC: the rebels and the government cannot occupy the same normative space, even if they perpetrate the same physical acts. To suggest, as “Ruined” does, that they are equally morally culpable for the devastation is to purposely and intentionally deny the viability of a context-specific, politically-nuanced solution to the problem of the country. Indeed, because of this intentionality, “Ruined” offers up another solution: the active distancing from all political actors in the conflict, and a lone emphasis only on humanitarian solutions that treat the symptoms of conflict, not the causes of it.

This thesis does not mean that any artistic or journalistic emphasis on victims of conflict necessarily implies that politically or socially sensitive solutions must give way to purely humanitarian ones. Surely “Ruined” could have articulated the stories of its victims without caricaturing the political situation that created them. It could have, for example, nuanced any of the rebel or government soldier’s characters. It could have articulated beyond platitudes what the positions of the opposing parties were. It could have done any number of things, but it actively refused to do so in a way that demonstrates not just a hesitance toward engaging politics, but rather a normative bias against politics and advocacy for pure humanitarianism. This is the principle problem of White Liberal humanitarianism: it refuses to ask the questions of “how” and “why,” and only offers up charity as the solution to conflict. It preaches an active denial of political consciousness. Any such consciousness would dilute the efficacy or importance of the pure humanitarian work, as if the latter can be done without the former.

That is evident in the New York Times review of the play in a section in which the reviewer actually succeeds in arguing against more politicizing of the conflict:

While the play seldom sounds like a lecture, its explanatory descriptions could be trimmed. The production makes many of its points so effectively in its staging and acting that the attendant speechifying can dangle like a set of footnotes. The surreal interchangeability of the opposing armies is suggested, for example, by double-casting the same actors.

It is precisely the “surreal interchangeability of the opposing armies” that is the problem with “Ruined.” That the New York Times’ reviewer sees this interchangeability as being threatened by “explanatory descriptions” and “lectures” suggests that our goal is not political understanding or nuance, but rather moral exculpation for our sins. When the audience left “Ruined,” it came out knowing virtually nothing about the history or politics of the DRC. And it wasn’t meant to, because that would detract from the “human suffering.” Politics is divisive; helping people is unifying. That is the logic of humanitarianism, and it is this logic that is profoundly destructive to the mission of solidarity that I believe the disinterested audience should be striving for – solidarity, as opposed to mere charity.

Again, I do not presume to have normative judgments about conflict in the DRC. I will leave that to scholars in the area. But as an observer, I know when I am told that normativity and political ideology are subjectivities that I must discard if I am to truly help people in need. I reject that position. I was genuinely moved by the story of those women in Mama Nadi’s brothel, and for that “Ruined” was successful. But its lack of normative prescriptions, its refusal to engage substantively with politics, and its advance of a hollow humanitarian ideal left me quite disappointed.



Filed under The Body Politic

5 responses to “Hollow humanitarianism: A review of Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined”

  1. Mo S.

    An exceptional and astute review! I was particularly moved by your attention to a state of informed solidarity, as opposed to simple charity based on emotive affect, and why knowing more makes us better critics. A beautiful and intelligent piece. Thanks for it!

  2. This is brave writing.
    “Occupy Wall Street” thinks about many issues in our lices today, with courage like this critic Mohammed T., does. I love being with “Occupy” spokespeople.
    “Occupy” is not white liberal thinking, and people like Oprah will never “get” what needs to be done.
    The death of this country has always been threatened by one innate falw in te USA character sringign from Liverals; one word! That word is the word both Oprah and Lynn Nottage are guilty of:
    Sentimentality always tales over here in this country and expels brave investigation into the ‘hard -to -face’, true causes of misery. Our own flaws.

  3. M.E. Harris

    “White” “liberal” “humanitarianism.” What about “Ruined” being a play about humanity amid inhumane circumstance? The playwright–who is, by the way, BLACK–might have used the DRC’s conflict as a backdrop (as do so many white authors of screenplays, television and theatre) for a story about what it means to survive with one’s own humanity in tact. This is certainly far less offensive than the White Liberal finding himself and his humanity thanks to the trials of the people of color. “Ruined” is not about the politics or the incidents leading to the conflict in the DRC, but about the courage and guile required to hold onto what you have. If you want political theatre, go to Eastern Europe. They’ve been doing it for years. It seems the only “guilt” here is your wanting “Ruined” to be something it’s not.

  4. Sally. M. Hammerman

    I apologize for my bluntness, but your review is purely asinine and ignorant …you leave out background information so you can write about YOUR agenda…not the agenda that is being told. I will leave it at that.

  5. Mohammad T.

    What background information did I leave out?

    On Tue, Dec 2, 2014 at 8:25 AM, Deaf Walls wrote:


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