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ama Nadi gives the salesman “the look.” She is unhappy that he is late with the cigarettes and condoms she needs for her bar and bordello in war-ravaged Congo. Mama Nadi uses “the look” to get her way and keep others from getting too close. She also uses a brilliant smile, a seductive look, flirtatious banter and a stone-cold stare to keep her business and her girls intact.
War is good for business, although it isn’t always clear who is fighting, let alone who is winning. Just check your ammunition at the door, Mama says. But Mama soon discovers she is walking the razor’s edge to survive the brutality of both sides.
Saidah Arrika Ekulona ’92 is Mama Nadi, the pivot point of Ruined, a new play by Lynn Nottage. After a critically acclaimed premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last fall, the production went on to New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club, where it has already been extended twice.
The Chicago Sun-Times called her “the formidable Saidah Ekulona.” The New York Times said Ekulona played Mama with “forceful Junoesque centeredness and a willful air of denial.”
Off stage, Ekulona at 5’9” seems taller, and with a dark halo of hair around her oval face, softer than Mama Nadi, but there is a glimmer of the same steel that defines her stage character.
Call it steel, call it grit, it is what’s necessary to be a successful working actor.
She’s appeared in films including The Royal Tenenbaums, Righteous Kill and the upcoming The Taking of Pelham 123. On TV, she had a supporting role in the sitcom “Hope and Faith” with Kelly Ripa, has done numerous episodes of “Law and Order,” appeared in “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” and in commercials from Staples to the New York Lotto. She has also done industrials, voiceovers and narrated books on tape.
Newly arrived as a freshman at Albright, Ekulona had no idea what to major in. Her father pushed her to take a course called “Who’s Afraid of Edward Albee,” taught by the late Professor of Theatre Lynn Morrow, who was then planning a campus Albee festival.
Ekulona loved the course, and with a half hour to spare, auditioned for Albee’s three-character The Man Who Had Three Arms. She got the part, complete with a daunting seven-page monologue, (and even got to work with Albee himself who was in residence at Albright during the festival.) The show went on to win a prestigious Fringe First at the 1989 Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland.
“Lynn told me I should be a theatre major,” Ekulona says. “She was kind of a force!”
Ekulona has been around theatre since she was five, on shoots with her father, a television reporter and producer, and through years of summer theatre at the Arena Playhouse, an African-American theatre in Baltimore, where she learned acting, movement, singing and dancing. She appeared in every Domino Theatre production during her four years at Albright.
Jeffrey Lentz ‘85, artist -in- residence at Albright, first met Ekulona in 1989 when she was a freshman. “You just knew she had it,” Lentz says.
“I remember where I was standing the first time I saw her. It was like going backstage at a Broadway show and meeting the star. She was very laid back and humble, but there was this look in her eyes that said, ‘I’ve found home.’”
After graduating with a theatre/African-American studies/women’s studies major, which she jokes was the “all about me” program, under the guidance of professors Lynn Morrow, Adele Newson and Mary Jane Androne, Ekulona went on to earn a master of fine arts degree at the University of Minnesota and the renowned Guthrie Theater.
Her moment of truth as an actor was when Morrow came to see her as Cordelia in King Lear at the Guthrie. Ekulona asked, “What do you think?”
“You are no longer my student. You are my colleague,” Morrow said.
She gets emotional talking about Morrow. “Her passion ignited a passion in me. She taught me to start seeing myself as an artist.”
As an artist, Ekulona says the most important thing is to put yourself aside to get to the truth of the play. “You just serve the play. And I don’t think I’ve ever served the play more than in Ruined. “
Based on interviews with Congolese women refugees from the civil war, Ruined has been compared to Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. The women have endured rape, mutilation and brutality, and the ultimate humiliation of being driven away by their husbands and families because they are “ruined.”
“Because this war is still going on right now it makes you even more responsible as an artist to really tell the truth and to serve the play and to get it right. We’ve had people born and raised in the Congo who have come to see this play and they stay afterward and they thank us for telling their story,” says Ekulona.
“This play helps reach into you and helps expose what’s going on in other parts of the world. It’s a universal story. Rape happens to women all the time. In this country, men and women are raped. The Congo is raped. The Congo is ruined.
“How do you do anything else but serve them and the truth of their position?”
This role is also Ekulona’s first professional lead role. “I’ve been playing supporting roles. There is a different responsibility that comes with that.
“Mama Nadi is four-dimensional. She’s a very complex, driven, sexy, flirtatious, independent, nurturing, compassionate, loving, disciplined, authoritative, savvy business woman, and that’s just the short version!
“I just knew her. It was the first time in my professional life that I walked into a room saying, ‘OK, damn, I’ve got a call back.’ An hour later I found out I got the gig.”
The play is emotionally exhausting and all-consuming. With eight shows a week, Ekulona doesn’t have time or energy for much else.
“She is onstage the entire time—there’s only one scene that she’s not in, in a show that runs more than two and a half hours. I take responsibility for the pace of the show. If the play starts to drag the audience starts to detach from it,” she says.
There is little chance of the audience detaching. At a sold-out Wednesday matinee, the audience of 30-somethings, students, senior citizens and ladies who lunch was riveted and motionless until they rose to give the cast a standing ovation.
Ekulona dedicates her performance to Lynn Morrow. “One of the best forms of respect is continuing the training that you’ve received, and in the program I dedicate my performance to Lynn, a good friend of mine who passed away, and the women in my family.”
What’s next after Ruined? Ekulona says she would like to do another sitcom. “Having an audience there feels like you’re in previews, opening and closing all at the same time.”
This summer she will be seen as a dispatcher in The Taking of Pelham 123 with John Travolta and Denzel Washington, directed by Tony Scott.
After that, a trip to Vienna is in the offing for an upcoming film by director Peter Sellars with Philip Seymour Hoffman.
That is, unless Ruined gets extended again.
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