If the notion of spending a night out at a play about ivory trafficking in modern-day Africa sounds admirable but not exactly indispensable, here’s a word of advice: Alter your perceptions. For Mlima’s Tale, the new play by Lynn Nottage at the Public Theater, is monumental. Ivory, yes; but also desire, greed, wealth, beauty, brutality, age-old voices on the Savannah, and history on the wind which Nottage spins into an engrossing web that will likely grasp your conscience and stay with you as you traverse the plains of Astor Place.
The success of the storytelling comes as no surprise to those familiar with the author, a so-called MacArthur genius who carries two Pulitzers in her pocket. Thus far: Ruined told of survivors of the civil war in the Congo; Sweat told of survivors (or rather victims) of the steel union war in Reading, Penn.; and Intimate Apparel—which in 2004 heralded Nottage as an oncoming playwright of immense power—told of a black seamstress and a Jewish merchant back in the garment jungle of 1905.
Each sounds as unlikely as Mlima’s Tale. It is Nottage’s method, apparently, to devise a provocative but uncommon premise; immerse herself in the characters; and through a combination of intensive research, intuitive talent, and dramatic alchemy, create a foreign world and bring us in by making us emotionally invested in the protagonist’s dilemma.
Mlima—“mountain” in Swahili—is indeed an elephant, a venerable and revered “big tusker.” The germ of the play seems to come from the poaching of the venerated Kenyan elephant Satao, at Tsavo National Park in 2014. Mlima is not simply a tale of Africa; Nottage takes us halfway ’round the world as Mlima—his more-precious-than-gold tusks, and his ghost—is trafficked. (The playwright borrows somewhat from Schnitzler’s La Ronde, with a character from one scene taking us into the next, while the new character in the second takes us on into the third.)
Some perpetrators are vicious or rapacious, others profess moral or religious objections. All, though, are enablers—and the playwright stains each and every one with an ivory-white mark of complicity. (“Don’t think there are no crocodiles because the water is calm,” the playwright counsels in one of the perceptive editorial slogans projected between scenes.) Nottage is speaking of the African ivory trade, yes; but incorporates occasional flashes that uncomfortably and not-so-subtly reference America’s own “peculiar institution.” When a complicit Kenyan game commissioner defensively points out that “Africans don’t buy ivory,” it’s hard not to hear the Yankee drone of a New England slave-ship captain.
To say that Mlima is played by Sahr Nguajah is deceptive; the production is built around the actor and his performance, but Nguajah is not “playing” an elephant. Rather he is an everyman, or everybeing, of the ages; this is a stunning performance, at some times almost painful to watch but at all times impossible to turn away from. (There is a sequence late in the play which we shall not describe, so as not to diminish its effect, but that will likely grip your innards as Mlima’s sprit is twisted and tortured.) Nguajah is well-remembered as the title character in Broadway’s Fela!, but this performance has even more impact.
The other cast members are equally excellent, each playing a variety of roles. Kevin Mambo—who as it happens was the alternate Fela!—is especially lethal in his early scenes as the corrupt chief of police Githinji, fanning himself with a native fly swatter. Ito Aghayere and Jojo Gonzalez also give dynamic performances.
Said magic is under the thorough control of director Jo Bonney, who has heretofore distinguished herself with Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home from the Wars (at the Public), Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, and numerous collaborations with Eric Bogosian. Nottage has set Bonney to work on a deceptively-simple bare stage, with just a handful of actors.
The results are remarkable, and presumably reflect a strong collaboration between playwright, director, producer Oskar Eustis and the exceptional design team: Riccardo Hernandez (sets), Jennifer Moeller (costumes), Lap Chi Chu (lights), Darron L West (sound), and Cookie Jordan (makeup). These plus composer/sound effects man Justin Hicks, who sits in full view at a console house left and plays an indispensable role in the evening’s magic.
Playgoers who are not geographically or logistically able to make their way to the Public through May 20 (with perhaps an extension) will likely have the opportunity to see Mlima’s Tale someplace or other, as Nottage’s plays attain and deserve local productions across the land. This play will likely reproduce well, although it’s hard to fathom how the Public production can be bettered—and by that we mean to praise all the participants, especially director Bonney and star Nguajah. So you might do well to get there if you can.
As for Nottage, this is yet another towering American drama. While the play bears little relation to The Emperor Jones, it shares the relentless urgency and pulse of O’Neill’s 98-year-old masterwork. And yes, after Ruined and Sweat and Mlima’s Tale, we might well start to discuss O’Neill and Nottage in tandem.
Mlima’s Tale opened April 15, 2018, at The Public Theater and runs through June 3. Tickets and information: www.publictheater.org