Elephants might become extinct in 20 years because of poaching for their ivory, we learn from “Mlima’s Tale,” the unusual new play by Lynn Nottage, the Pulitzer prize winning playwright of Ruined and Sweat, which is staged poetically by Jo Bonney, with a memorable performance by Sahr Ngaujah as Mlima.
When we first see him, Ngaujah is in a tense crouch, his left arm stretched in the air behind him, his right arm curled below him, like an especially fierce bowler – or a massive elephant with a mighty trunk. In his opening monologue, he recalls old times on the savannah, where “I was once a proud warrior, unafraid to be seen.” That was “before the violent crackle, before the drought and the madness.” Now: “I run more than I walk, and I can never catch my breath. They are watching me. Watching always. I hear them all around me. And I run, more than I walk.”
Poachers kill Mlima in the second scene – and for the rest of the 80 minute play, Ngaujah represents the elephant’s tusks.
The bulk of “Mlima’s Tale” details the chain of complicity and corruption in the illegal ivory trade, from the poachers who illegally kill Mlima in a Kenyan preserve, to law enforcement and other officials whose greed or incompetence make such killing worth the risk, to the master carver who is happy to be lied to about the origin of the ivory, to the nouveau riche buyer from China who relies on her ignorance (“You hear so many things.”) There are some 18 characters in this chain, portrayed by just three actors in a kind of theatrical relay, following the structure of “La Ronde” by Arthur Schnitzler: One of the characters from a two-person scene is then paired with a new character in the next scene. Mlima hovers over each scene, each time at some point rubbing white paint on the characters – as if making their guilt visible.
The quick-change artistry of the three actors is impressive, although it’s not always clear who they’ve become. The corruption feels well researched (as are all of Nottage’s plays), although it’s a sad comment on modern times that there is little surprising in the characters’ duplicity, and it starts to feel repetitive. What stays engaging is the beautiful stagecraft – Ngaujah’s haunting presence; the nods to African storytelling, with phrases projected onto the scenes (such as “Don’t think there are no crocodiles because the water is calm,” and “A man’s greed is like a snake that wants to swallow an elephant.”); the lush lighting by Lap Chi Chu; the African-inflected percussive-focused music by Justin Hicks; and the sound design by Darron L West, who brings us the sounds of the Savannah, including the layered, anthropomorphized voices of generations of killed elephants, as well as realistic bellows by the noble animals, faint but forceful, resembling wails, or alarms.
The Public Theater
Written by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Jo Bonney
Cast: Ito Aghayere, Jojo Gonzalez, Kevin Mambo, and Sahr Ngaujah
Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez
Costume Design by Jennifer Moeller
Lighting Design by Lap Chi Chu
Sound Design by Darron L West
Hair & Makeup Design by Cookie Jordan
Composer and Music Director: Justin Hicks
Movement Director: Chris Walker
Fight Director: Thomas Schall
Production Stage Manager: Linda Marvel
Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission
Mlima’s Tale is scheduled to run through May 20, 2018
Update: Extended to June 3, 2018