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Mlima’s Tale

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 15, 2018

Sahr Ngaujah
Photo by Joan Marcus

There's an elephant in the room in Mlima's Tale, opening tonight at the Public Theater, though he hasn't got enough to do in Lynn Nottage's latest work, a multimedia docudrama about the ugly business of slaughtering these endangered mammoths for their tusks.

More precisely, the 80-minute work is about the greed that feeds the complex system of poaching and smuggling in the secretive and seemingly unstoppable world of illicit ivory trade and the half-hearted efforts to put a halt to the increasing threat of extinction to the world's elephant population.

Hovering over the entire production is the spirit of the grand and glorious Mlima, "one of the last big tuskers in Kenya," enacted in a most evocative display of performance art by Sahr Ngaujah. Mlima is a cryptic and judgmental figure as he observes the human characters (Jojo Gonzalez, Ito Aghayere, and the always-excellent Kevin Mambo). Each of these three plays multiple and quickly changing roles as they engage in the heinous acts that begin with Mlima's death and removal of his highly-coveted tusks in a Kenyan game preserve. In short scenes, we see them figuring out who to bribe, how they can sneak past customs officers, how to doctor paperwork, and how to quiet the press. Ultimately, through endless conniving, the trail leads from Africa to the home of a wealthy private collector in Vietnam. The only repercussions are those faced by Mlima and scores of other elephants that are being slaughtered in numbers greater than they are reproducing.

The production, under Jo Bonney's precise direction, tells Mlima's story through a blend of projections, an evocative soundscape of recorded animal noises and live music (performed by Justin Hicks), along with the brief scenes of the guilty parties' interactions. Always watching is the omnipresent Mlima. Smeared with daubs of white paint, Sahr Ngaujah as Mlima leaves a mark on everyone who takes part in the cycle of destruction, whether they are among those who are directly involved, those who look the other way, or buyers who ask no questions.

In her writing, Lynn Nottage gives us the kind of artistic precision we have come to expect from the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner. And yet, for all its powerful moments, the play feels as if it is missing the most important voice of Mlima himself. When the dying elephant speaks in the opening minutes, before he succumbs to the weapons carried by the poachers who have been tracking him, it is with the mesmerizing tones of a traditional griot: "When I was young, I was taught by my grandmother to listen to the night. Really listen, for the rains in the distance, for the rustling of the brush, for the cries of friend or foe."

This is what we need more of. What is Mlima's story? What has he seen and learned during five decades of life on the African plains? We don't need Nottage to turn him into Dumbo or Babar or Horton in order for us to be moved by his plight and the plight of his kind. But we do need something more than his impotent fury and judgmental glares. In the end, what we get is a good sense of the playwright's research into the crisis, but Mlima's Tale offers up too much "docu" and not enough "drama" to help move us from helpless disgust to sympathy and possible action, which ought to be its ultimate goal.

Mlima's Tale
Through May 20
Martinson Hall at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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