Two-time, Pulitzer-Prize winner Lynn Nottage takes the plight of elephants being hunted and killed for their tusks and turns it into a riveting, haunting piece of theatre. In Mlima’s Tale, we follow Mlima, a 50-year-old savanna elephant who is one of the last “big tusker’s”. The tale starts as two Somali poachers kill this magnificent elephant with two perfect tusks. Mlima does not die easily. He has been shot 10 times and once with a poison arrow. This is an animal who strives to live for his family, for his dignity, and for his race. The poachers just don’t cut off his tusks but mutilate his corpse. Once killed, Mlima’s spirit haunts the progress of where his precious teeth journey. His tusks have become white streaks of betrayal, pain, and a hot commodity in the international ivory market.
As several countries and political officials are outed for their corruption and greed, a spotlight is shed, but will it do some good or just linger in the stylized direction by Jo Bonney (Father Comes Home from the Wars)?
The physical Sahr Ngaujah (Fela!) portrays Mlima in a series of contorted movements that encompass this stunning endangered animal. His striking visual presence is slightly diminished when he speaks. It is full of fury and loud even when he is speaking of his beloved family.
Ito Aghayere, Jojo Gonzalez, and Kevin Mambo are amazing as they cross racial and gender boundaries portraying multiple characters. They embody two poachers, a park warden, a police chief, an African government official, a boat captain, a Chinese collector, a Vietnamese smuggler, a master ivory carver and a wealthy art buyer, as well as others who have been a part of this guilt infested unethical practice.
The lighting by Lap Chi Chu, shifting panels and digital projections by Richard Hernandez, sound design by Darron L. West, and phenomenal music and sound by Justin Hicks set this piece into an atmospheric wonderland.
Booney’s unusual staging is unsettling and I do not think I will ever be able to look at a piece of ivory without feeling the horror that accompanies the beauty.
I loved the African-inspired proverbs and the smearing of the paint as guilt but I’m not sure if that was Booney’s or Nottage’s inception.
At 80 minutes, the play clips by and will stay in your mind long after. Will Mlima’s Tale change the world’s greed and attitude, sadly no. After all, Mlima is only an animal and in the eyes of the world, a product to be used and or eaten.
Mlima’s Tale: The Public Theatre, 425 Layette St. until June 3rd.