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New York playwright tackles Congo violence

By Edith Honan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York playwright Lynn Nottage explores rape as a weapon of war in "Ruined," set in a Congolese brothel, and says she hopes to stage the play in Africa to empower more women to speak out against violence.

"Ruined," which opened to rave reviews last month at the New York City Center theater and has been extended through May 3, is based on dozens of interviews Nottage conducted with Congolese women. Photographs on those women, in black and white, line the theater's lobby.

"Women continue to be brutalized in incredible numbers, and they continue to be frightened to speak out," Nottage, 44, who speaks softly and wears long dreadlocks, told Reuters. "Hopefully, this will provide some sort of forum for them."

"I plan to make it happen," she said of staging the play in Africa, where she hopes it will encourage peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where around 5.4 million people died from violence, hunger and disease in the past decade.

"Ruined," directed by Kate Whoriskey, is set at the shrewd Mama Nadi's brothel in Congo's Ituri province, where men are served watered-down liquor and are told to leave their bullets at the bar and their politics outside.

Mama Nadi's women prefer this fate to remaining in villages, where brutal encounters with soldiers are common.

"Ruined" explores Mama Nadi's bond with Sophie -- the bookkeeper and bar singer who is taken in after she is raped with a bayonet and left "ruined," or sexually mutilated.

Gunfire is often heard in the distance and male clients, many of them impulsive soldiers, lead the women offstage from the bar to the unseen quarters of the brothel.

"I think that if a man had directed this play, you would have seen more of the brutality on the stage," said Nottage. "We were really careful not to exploit these women twice."

Nottage, who lives in Brooklyn, is a 2007 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, the $500,000 so-called genius grant. Her previous plays, including "Intimate Apparel," were about African-American women.

INTERVIEWED WOMEN AND SOLDIERS

Nottage traveled to Uganda in 2004 with Amnesty International to interview women with the idea of writing a modern adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage."

"None of the women came out and said, 'Yes, I was in a brothel.' But they talked around what they were doing to survive. And so I inferred they were doing a lot of things they weren't necessarily proud of," said Nottage.

"On the day of the first interviews, we were sort of shocked by the flow of 15 to 20 women who were ... desperate to tell their stories."

She said many of the women were brutally raped.

One woman described being gang raped by nine men and then being forced to look on as her daughter was raped, her husband killed and her son abducted.

Nottage returned to Africa in 2005 for interviews in Kenya, Tanzania and at a refugee camp in northern Uganda.

This time, she interviewed not only women, but demobilized soldiers who had fought with Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army.

"They would speak about violence against women but never personally. So, all of them had witnessed these things but none of them would admit to having done them," she said.

She said Somalia might be the setting for her next play.

"The stories I heard about Somalia made the stories from Congo look like child's play," Nottage said. "This is the next story, the next story that needs to be told."

(Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Mark Egan and Philip Barbara)

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