We knew from the title we weren't likely in for a cheery good time, but we went into Berkeley Rep's newest production, Ruined, without having read anything about it. The subject turns out to be the systematic rape and genital mutilation of women in the Congo -- a subject we knew a little bit about, but which, sure, we might not opt to go watch a whole play about. The play, as it happens, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2009, and don't get us wrong: It's a good play. But we suppose we're among those stereotypical Americans fatigued by stories about atrocities like these. Africa's seen a lot of them, and we've heard about a lot of them. But this isn't a play that's meant to proselytize or educate so much as it seeks some answers about why humans do the things they do, and in particular, why men commit such crimes against women, or against their own people.

To understand the story one must first understand something about modern-day Congo. It turns out this very poor country is extremely rich in an ore that's become prized as a vital conductor in microprocessors -- it's called coltan, an abbreviation for columbite-tantalite. Miners are hard at work finding the stuff all over the country, and an estimated $1 million worth is hauled out of the country every day. Consequently, amidst an ongoing civil war, new mines are sometimes taken by forcibly moving villagers off their land -- and/or the Congolese Army and various rebel factions sometimes want to move in on a village for strategic reasons -- and one of the most effective ways both sides have of demoralizing a village and taking it over is by raping its women. Just on New Year's Day 2011, Doctors Without Borders reported a mass rape of 33 women in a village in eastern Congo.