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It’s no spoiler to reveal that the title character of Lynn Nottage’s new drama dies in the opening scene. After delivering a lyrical monologue about his origins, Mlima, a beloved and protected Kenyan elephant represented in human form by the actor Sahr Ngaujah, is attacked by two poachers who patiently wait for him to die, not wanting to fire their guns so as to avoid making any noise. As the rest of Mlima’s Tale unfolds, the animal’s spirit hovers over those morally corrupt people so eager to exploit his magnificent tusks for commercial gain.
This latest work, receiving its world premiere at the Public Theater, marks a stylistic departure for playwright Nottage, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (Ruined, Sweat) who specializes in putting a complex human face on charged political and social issues. This play is less character-driven and more story theater-like in its approach, employing the La Ronde-inspired device of relating its story in short episodes in which one character from the preceding scene appears in the next.
The result, while certainly admirable in its spotlighting of the horrific poaching that has decimated African wildlife, particularly elephants, in recent years, is mixed. More didactic than narratively involving, the show never accumulates much dramatic force.
Three performers (Kevin Mambo, Jojo Gonzalez, Ito Aghayere) play a multitude of characters figuring in the story, including the poachers, a park warden, a police chief, an African government official, a Chinese collector, a Vietnamese smuggler, a boat captain, a master ivory carver and a wealthy art buyer, among others. The ensemble’s frequent shifts in gender and nationality are sometimes confusing, and while there are many powerful moments, the narrative is choppy and disjointed.
You can feel the playwright straining for stylistic effect. Scenes are introduced with projections of African-inspired proverbs, such as “A single stick may smoke but it will not burn” and “No one tests the depth of the river with both feet” — these come to feel like fortune-cookie aphorisms. After his slaughter, Mlima, described as Kenya’s “national treasure,” becomes coated in white paint, which he proceeds to wipe on the other characters as if to provide a visual mark of their guilt.
It’s a problem when the most vivid character onstage is a mostly mute elephant (and his tusks). Such is the case here, due not only to the sketchy writing but also to Ngaujah’s highly expressive physical performance. The actor, who originated the title role in the acclaimed Broadway musical Fela! (Mambo served as his alternate for certain performances), is such a striking visual presence you can’t take your eyes off him, although he might be a bit more convincing as a pachyderm if he possessed at least an ounce of body fat.
The rest of the ensemble are certainly effective in their multiple roles. The stark staging by Jo Bonney (Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3) features evocative sound and lighting design by Darron L. West and Lap Chi Chu respectively, and a musician (Justin Hicks) sits offstage, providing atmospheric percussive and vocal accompaniment.
Clocking in at a mere 80 minutes, the play doesn’t wear out its welcome. It also features occasional doses of pungent humor — “You know how white people love their animals,” one character complains about the attention paid to the illicit ivory trade — that alleviate its stern moralizing. But unlike, say, the eye-opening Ruined, about women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mlima’s Tale doesn’t shed much light on a subject amply covered in recent documentary films, or tell us anything we didn’t already know. At its conclusion, you wind up feeling exactly the same way as when it began.
Venue: The Public Theater, New York
Cast: Ito Aghayere, Jojo Gonzalez, Kevin Mambo, Sahr Ngaujah
Playwright: Lynn Nottage
Director: Jo Bonney
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer: Jennifer Moeller
Lighting designer: Lap Chi Chu
Sound designer: Darron L. West
Presented by The Public Theater
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