By Lynn Nottage
Directed by Jo Bonney
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“I’m Mlima of the Great Plains. Eldest of my clan. I was tracked for many days, taken by a poison arrow. Why are there so many of you?! Mumbi? Koko? Do you hear me?”
Mighty Mlima, “Kenya’s most famous elephant,” – the old, large elephant “with extraordinary tusks” – is murdered for those tusks by the Somali poachers Raman and Geedi. The story of that slaughter and how the magnificent tusks become part of the global illegal ivory trade is the subject of Lynn Nottage’s “Mlima’s Tale,” currently running in the Public’s Martinson Hall. This monstrous tale is relayed with exquisite detail and stirring magical realism from the killing of Mlima to the display of his intricately carved tusks in the new flat of nouveau riche Alice Ying in Bejing.
After Milima’s transformation to Tusks and Spiritul Presence, streaking his face and body with ivory paint and dust in a ritualized manner, he appears in every scene. Sahr Ngaujah’s personification of the elder pachyderm is a powerful presence as he emerges from the shadows, sits, looms over, and follows the characters that gather to determine the “fate of Mlima’s Tusks. They pass through the hands of poachers, a regional warden, a White Kenyan Director of Wildlife, a reporter, a Tanzanian businessman from Zanzibar, a ship’s captain, a customs officer, a carver, a Vietnamese trader, and a nouveau riche customer. Each of these characters – except perhaps Warden Wamwara Machau – exudes greed, deceit, dishonesty, and equivocation. Their entitlement and privilege are branded with the white marks of complicity (the marks of Cain?) Mlima places on them before he leaves the stage after each scene.
Sahr Ngaujah’s performance as Mlima and Mlima’s Tusks is spellbinding, spiritualistic, and primordially otherworldly. Mr. Ngaujah’s “elephant dances,” his contorted posturing of pain, anger, and judgement leaping from the stage directly into the hearts of the members of the audience is accompanied by the music (keyboard, percussion, and instrumental) and the haunting vocals of Justin Hicks. Throughout the play, Mr. Ngaujah and Mr. Hicks seems to breath in unison with hearts that appear to beat as one as Mlima. Mr. Ngaujah dominates the stage with an incomparable strength and persona. His Mlima is larger than life and transcends pain and death.
Adapting the form of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play “La Ronde,” Lynn Nottage retains one character from each of her scenes into the next. For example, from Scene II, the character of Geedi appears in Scene III with Githinji. Githinji then appears in Scene IV with Wamwara. This literary device repeats through Scene XV with Mlima (tusks) appearing alone in the first and last scenes. Ms. Nottage employs this device with great care infusing each scene with her unique perspective and carefully developed characters that reverberate with believable authenticity. These characters are easily distinguishable and have unique traits and personalities. A brilliant cast of Three Players – Kevin Mambo. Jojo Gonzalez, and Ito Aghayere – play all the characters. Each scene is “titled” with an appropriate African proverb like “The teeth are smiling, but is the heart?”
Under Jo Bonney’s fluid direction, the scenes move seamlessly from one to the other. A sliding panel (sometimes more than one) signals the scene changes allowing the action to proceed without full blackouts. Riccardo Hernandez’s set design is stark and sparse, lighted with perfection by Lap Chi Chu in overlapping pools of encroaching animus. The themes of Lynn Nottage’s transformative script transcend the confines of the illegal ivory trade: “Milma’s Tale” counterpoints every “tale” of greed, deceit, dishonesty, and equivocation extant in every transaction – economic or political – that threatens the spiritual core of the global community.