Lynn Nottage's 2018 “Mlima's Tale” is a powerful piece of political theater that will make you see the perfidy of the illegal ivory trade in a whole new way.
The only female two-time Pulizer Prize winner for drama (for “Ruined” and Sweat”) combines poetry, ritual, and choreographed movement to tell the story of greed and corruption from the perspective of...the elephant in the room. A rare old “big tusker” named Mlima (David Goodloe) and considered a “national treasure,” he waxes eloquent about his dangerous life on a Kenyan game preserve before he reenacts being slaughtered for his huge tusks by poachers in the very first scene. Then he—and his tusks—haunt the remainder of the play's 90 minutes, which depict his travels from Africa to Asia as his tusks pass through many hands until they end up transformed by a master carver and displayed by a rich socialite.
While Nottage is not didactic, no one comes off unscathed, not even the committed but overwhelmed ranger (Michael Turrentine) who allows men he knows aren't guilty to be accused of killing Mlima to avoid losing his job. At the same time, those who are guilty of the murder (Turrentine and Lewon Johns) – by poisoned arrow rather than gun shot, which might tip off wardens – feel some respect for the animal as he dies an agonizingly slow death. Among those who are totally venal is the police chief (Johns), who bargains for the tusks and simultaneously threatens to punish the poachers for killing the revered animal despite the international ban. More equivocal is the white official (Collin McShane) who has to explain the death to reporters.
Middlemen involved in the overseas transport of the valuable tusks (whose price keeps increasing with every payoff) include a wily Chinese embassy official in Kenya, a ship's captain, bribe-able customs officers in Vietnam, and a shifty Asian businessman. Then the tusks are turned over to the master ivory carver and ultimately sold to the ultra-rich Chinese society wife who displays the exquisite art works in her new apartment.
Basically, the play is structured as a series of two-character scenes—not counting Mlima's presence—with one character from each ending up in the next, much like in Arthur Schnitzler's “La Ronde.” In Griffin Theatre Company's production, these characters all are played by six actors: Ben Chang, Christopher Thomas Pow, and Sarah Lo plus Turrentine, Johns, and McShane. Although in the New York premiere at the Public Theater, they were portrayed by only three actors, having six may be more confusing, perhaps because the changes come quickly and Caitlin McLeod's costume design doesn't always make adequate distinctions.
Under Jerrell L. Henderson's direction, the actors craft distinct characters (especially Turrentine), though some are more memorable than others. A few scenes bring together the whole ensemble to portray everything from Mlima's limbs and body in the opening (I think; it wasn't entirely clear) to the suggestion of slaves with him on the ship.
Goodloe's Mlima, whose name means “mountain,” towers above them all, figuratively if not literally. Strong and supple, he appears shirtless and in loose pants, his torso painted with white designs meant to represent his tusks. As his odyssey progresses, he's covered more and more in white, and the further he gets from home, the weaker he becomes, He also lurks around every scene, and with each betrayal, he smears white paint on the face of the perpetrator with two fingers, meant to represents his tusks, I think.
Joy Ahn's simple scenic design features ropes and muslin cloths hanging from a wood frame. Jared Gooding's lighting and L.J. Luthinger's sound design add drama and texture but not enough to really bring Mlima's African home to life or to evocatively depict any of the other locations, except perhaps the ship's hold. This kind of story theater requires audience members to use their imaginations, I realize, but we could have used a little more help. Projections might work; I'm not sure.
Other than that, and some confusion about who's who and what's supposed to be happening, “Mlima's Tale” deserves high marks for shining a spotlight on a terrible problem in a way that illuminates just how difficult it is to solve.