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Rebel Smile Condola Rashad lends a resilient grace to the Pulitzer-winning drama “Ruined.”
The long run of Lynn Nottage’s extraordinary Congo-set drama Ruined—roughly eight months, if you count its start at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last fall before it came to Manhattan Theatre Club in February—is finally taking its toll on actress Condola Rashad, 21, who makes her professional debut in the role of Sophie, a pretty young singer who’s fallen victim to the title condition.

“It’s definitely harder as it goes on,” confesses Rashad, whose portrayal of the vulnerable but resilient Sophie is just one of a gallery of indelible characters torn by the complicated civil strife in the Republic of Congo. “The whole goal is to leave a lot of the weight in the theater. “It’s definitely harder as it goes on,” confesses Rashad, whose portrayal of the vulnerable but resilient Sophie is just one of a gallery of indelible characters torn by the complicated civil strife in the Republic of Congo. “The whole goal is to leave a lot of the weight of the play in the theater, and go on with your life. I found that a lot easier at the beginning, but as time goes on, it’s a little more difficult to maintain that ground.”

The strength to keep on comes in part from the overwhelming response of audiences (not to mention critics and the Pulitzer committee, who recently award Nottage the coveted prize).

“We’re able to keep it going because audiences have been so encouraging, and the helps us keep moving through it,” says Rashad.

But clearly a big source of Rashad’s spiritual sustenance is the remarkable character of Sophie herself.

“The beautiful thing about Sophie is that though she does have this emotional and physical scar, she moves through life with grace—her rebellion is to smile,” Rashad says. “I was thinking about that the other day: This must be quite a world to live in, where a form of rebellion is to smile. It’s a smile that comes from knowing the good things always override the bad. The only way she can exist is to know that.”

That takes some otherworldly optimism given the conditions at Mama Nadi’s saloon/brothel, where Sophie sings for her supper but can’t offer more personal entertainment to the government and guerrilla soldiers who patronize the place. The title refers to a state of genital mutilation by foreign objects—a horrific tool of terror and cruelty in the Congolese conflict, which Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey researched in person as the play was being written. Sophie’s injury meant that Rashad had to develop a certain gait that indicated damage without making every scene about her disability.

“It took a lot for me to get to that place—it’s a physicality I’m not used to,” says Rashad. “It’s an absolute mess down there, and at first I had to overdo it. The whole point with a gesture or movement is, you’ve got to get it to a place where you don’t think about it anymore. So I had go to through everything and think: how would she do this, how would she reach for that; how would she get on her knees. I did it piece by piece a couple of times, then it started becoming second nature. I overdid the walk for a while, then I brought it back.”

Of course, developing a limp with such a harrowing origin and history always ends up being more than just a physical process—that’s practically Acting 101. What’s interesting is that Rashad’s acting training at California Institute of the Arts was on the other end of the spectrum from emotional realism—and her own personal emphasis was decidedly not on heavy histrionics.

“At Cal Arts, a lot of the work we did was experimental,” Rashad recalls. “I was used to doing stuff that was not race-related, and I’m very interested in is comedy, so it was interesting coming into Ruined, which is totally the opposite. In fact, coming out of school, I was considered a comedian and a character actress.”

There’s logic in this seeming contradiction, though.

“The reason I went to Cal Arts is that I thought it would expand my imagination,” Rashad says. “And that’s important when you’re doing a co-called ‘straight play.’ When you’ve been expanded, that also expands your knowledge of everything, so you can bring that to your work. Cal Arts helped me come out of myself; I knew that when I got out and started working I might be subject to typecasting, but Cal Arts let me to do whatever my mind could take me to do.”

Rashad has a few other models for comporting herself in the public eye: Her father is former Milwaukee Viking and sportscaster Ahmad Rashad, and her mother is the Tony-winning actress and TV star Phylicia Rashad (who’s about to go into August: Osage County as Violet Weston).

“They did a good job of keeping their family life and professional life—not separate exactly, but distinct,” Rashad recalls. “I was always with my mother when she did a movie or a play, and I knew early on that I wanted to be an actor.” How did she know? “I would watch my mom and thought I could do a better job!” Rashad says impishly.

But both parents were “adamant,” she says, that she not get into the arts at too young an age. They felt it was important, Rashad says, that she get a chance to “just be a kid, play soccer. I was not a show kid. I appreciate that, because as an actor now I have more to draw from.”

Rashad is doing some brilliant drawing nightly with her heartbreaking performance in Ruined.

Click here for more information about Ruined.