There is cruel irony in the exquisite ways in which Mlima’s Tale has been crafted, designed and staged, since its story details how today’s illegal trafficking in ivory reduces a magnificent living creature to an object of deadly beauty.
Many a TV and film documentary already has chronicled how elephants are still being butchered for their tusks; reportedly 20,000 elephants perished last year. Yet the imaginative nature of Lynn Nottage’s latest play, and how beautifully her text has been realized by director Jo Bonney’s fine production for the Public Theater, makes for an especially resonant stage work.
Four actors and a musician are employed to relate Mlima’s Tale, which begins in the wilds of Kenya and concludes in a swank penthouse in Beijing. Mlima, whose name means “mountain,” is a 50-year-old male elephant tracked and killed by Somali poachers for his magnificent ivory tusks. Embodied with eloquent physicality by Sahr Ngaujah, the actor known best for originating the title role in Fela!, Mlima is shown in the opening scene as writhing in his death throes from a poisoned arrow.
For nearly all of the remainder of the 80-minute drama, Ngaujah is a silent, glowering presence who represents the tusks as they are smuggled out of Africa and ultimately carved into a massive ivory sculpture. Ngaujah’s face and half-naked body increasingly become covered with streaks of white paint that leave traces of residue on every person who comes into contact with the tusks as they slowly travel eastwards towards China. A chain of corrupt bureaucrats, ivory traffickers, customs officials, artisans and other middlemen that ends at last with a nouveau-riche buyer eventually will be dirtied by these marks of complicity.
The subtle, sometimes sanctimonious double-talk in which these people bargain and extort and trade for the ivory between each other is chilling to hear.
Nottage constructs the drama in the manner of Schnitzler’s La Ronde, in that a person who appears in one scene then shows up in the next to sell the ivory treasure to yet another person who in turn sells it to somebody else in the scene after that. Kevin Mambo, Jojo Gonzalez and Ito Aghayere provide chameleon-like incarnations of these various individuals of changing cultures and genders. Their sharp, distinctive characterizations are aided considerably by the costumes designed by Jennifer Moeller and their hair and makeup as designed by Cookie Jordan.
Although a certain inevitability creeps into the progression of the story, the drama’s brevity, fluency and rueful content more than compensate for one’s early anticipation of its outcome.
Riccardo Hernandez’s sets are elegant in their austerity: Locations are established by projections of simple shapes for doors and similar features, animated by Lap Chi Chu’s atmospheric lighting. Blank panels that slide horizontally along the front of the stage dissolve the story from one scene into the next. Each such passage is marked by a meaningful intertitle such as “The word is like the Delta, it stretches in every direction.” The play and Bonney’s supple staging are enhanced by the natural sounds of Darron L West’s aural background and a striking, percussive score composed and performed by Justin Hicks, who makes such lively evocative music from a spot adjacent to the stage.
A timely, sorrowful story told very well indeed, Mlima’s Tale demonstrates the remarkable versatility of Nottage as a playwright. The drama’s lithe, quasi-documentary style is nothing like the gritty realism of her Sweat and Ruined, each of which deservedly won a Pulitzer Prize. Nor is this latest play anything like the historical fiction of Intimate Apparel and satirical By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. Such an impressive diversity of expression, as well as the underlying passion and smarts that drive all of her well-crafted stories, is why Nottage ranks among our finest dramatists today.