Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Mlima's Tale
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Review by Richard T. Green

Joe Ngo, Kambi Gathesha, and Will Mann
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage's drama about the illegal ivory trade has been waiting in the wings for about eleven months at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, a holdover from their last season, delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic that's now taken about six hundred thousand lives in this country. But Mlima's Tale has finally appeared on the market, unsettling and elegant: smuggled across town from the usual Rep venue in suburban Webster Groves, to a beautiful new theater a block south of the University City lions' gates, at the Center of Creative Arts (COCA).

Like COVID-19, Mlima's Tale begins with cruel, senseless, isolated death—and in this case is followed by smirking obfuscation on the part of corrupt Kenyan (and other) officials. The play follows a great bull elephant's ivory tusks as they are spirited out of a wildlife preserve, to end up in a dot-com billionaire's swanky new flat in Asia. Shariffa Chelimo Ali directs with flawless pace and unflinching human insight, and Kambi Gathesha stirs agony in our hearts each time he reappears as the ghost of Mlima (the elephant). Mlima's gigantic, four million shilling (seven million yuan) tusks are sensuously appraised again and again, to Mr. Gathesha's wincing pain. And yet there is also human charm woven into the story, along with a persistent sense of cruel violation.

The gradual extinction of a species is set forth as an unsolvable problem, simply because so many greedy people wish it to be. And though the crowning glory of this black market effort is the pair of ivory carvings sold to adorn a rich man's penthouse, the greater art of the play is revealed in the corruption of the various smugglers (and their supernumeraries) along the way.

Director Ali gets excellent work out of the other three actors on stage, too. Ezioma Asonye plays an uneasy novice poacher, alongside the nearly spiritual Will Mann, who leads the way tracking the wandering Mlima through the preserve, and Joe Ngo is delightfully wicked as the crooked park administrator who betrays the trust of his nation. All three supporting actors reappear in multiple roles as the tusks are moved thousands of miles east-northeast from central Africa. Mr. Mann also portrays a haunted park spokesman, and Mr. Ngo a seemingly noble foreign attaché.

Ms. Asonye is bracing as a customs official and a rich man's shrill wife. Mr. Ngo returns as a ship's captain, wracked with anguish, when the tusks unexpectedly turn up in one of his crates marked "lumber." And in the final scene, he and Mr. Mann are smirking party boys, when the carved tusks are finally revealed in their new, reimagined splendor. There, Ms. Asonye, as the rich buyer, presents a revealing mix of both the obnoxious arriviste, and the well-rehearsed cosmopolite.

The message of it all is set forth in steady, quiet fashion—gauzy as a wave of stultifying summer weather as corruption chokes out all other sensation. The promise of riches smothers every other thought, with a joke or a wink and a nod. And the world watches with a shrug, as a ghastly scandal plays out.

Based on the novel "The Ivory Highway" by Damon Tabor, Mlima's Tale runs through July 11, 2021, at the Berges Theatre in the new wing of the Center of Creative Arts, 524 Trinity Ave., St. Louis MO. Audience size is currently limited to 25% of theater capacity, and breathing masks are required at all times. The water fountains off the lobby are blocked from use, but you could theoretically bring a cup with you, if you need drinking water before or after the 85 minute show. There's also a new (free) parking garage immediately north, across the street. For more information visit

Kambi Gathesha*: Mlima*
Ezioma Asonye*: Mumbi, Rahman, Wamwara, Patience, Hassan Abdulla, Chief Mate, Elephant #1, Hua Huynh, Carver, Alice
Will Mann*: Long Ears, Geedi, Andrew, Waiter, Aziz Muhammed, Elephant #2, Customs Agent, Angie, Master Nee, Hong Feng
Joe Ngo*: Koko Mkimbiaji, Githinji, Guoxi, Captain Ramaaker, Elephant #3, Thuy Fan, Mr. Cheung, Li Jun

Artistic Staff:
Director: Shariffa Chelimo Ali
Choreographer: Kirven Douthit-Boyd
Scenic Design: You-Shin Chen
Costume Designer: Helen Q. Huang
Lighting Designer: Jasmine Lesane
Composer and Sound Designer: Avi Amon
Dialect Coach (Vietnamese, Chinese): Jule Foh
Dialect Coach (Kenyan, Somalian, Tanzanian): Barbara Rubin
Casting: X Casting, Victor Vasquez, CSA
Assistant Director: Aria Velz
Associate Costume Designer: Madison Booth
Associate Costume Designer: Natali Arco
Stage Manager: Shannon B. Sturgis*
Assistant Stage Manager: R. Christopher Maxwell*
Production Assistant: Sammie Haas

* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the U.S.