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New York City Theater

"Mlima’s Tale"
Public Theater

Eloquent, absorbing and sad, Lynn Nottage’s “Mlima’s Tale” riffs on Arthur Schnitzler’s “La Ronde.” Instead of sex and physical ills making the rounds, the play by two-time Pulitzer Prize Winner Nottage details the sick and deadly journey of an elephant’s tusks from an underpaid poacher in Kenya to a rich consumer in China.

Each scene builds on itself, starting with the poacher who is forced to sell the tusks for less than expected to the Chief of Police. Next, the Chief bargains with the Warden, the Warden with the Director of Wildlife and so on, until we reach the filthy-rich buyer in China.

Implied is the passed-on disease of big-game hunting, a mockery of the pact made between God and Man to take care of the earth and its inhabitants. By breaking the Great Chain of Being that interconnects all creatures, we will inevitably end up killing everyone and everything, including ourselves.

Think Cecil the lion, the supposedly protected Zimbabwe animal, slain three years ago by a mid-West dentist who paid a reported $50,000 to track and slaughter the king of beasts. Think the Trump sons, posing with wildlife trophies, including an elephant’s bloody tail.

As Nottage points out, “Africans don’t buy ivory.” Poachers and hunters are merely the conduits between animals killed for profit or sport and those who get rich or some sort of kick out of doing the putrescent deed.

The muscular, lithe, glistening Sahr Ngaujah, so fine in the musical “Fela,” suggests rather than mimics Mlima, the elephant. Although “killed” in the first scene, Mlima, representing his tusks, appears in succeeding encounters.  Branding profiteers by smearing them with the paint he spread on his body, so empathetic is Ngaujah as Mlima that we cringe with every assault on his being. It’s a powerful performance, filled with rage and revenge.

Through it all, Mlima’s soul lives on, his magnificent tusks haunting each transaction. Cryptic titles act as transitions and foretellings. “Thunder is not yet rain’’; “A word is like the Delta, it stretches in every direction”; “Don’t think there are no crocodiles because the water is calm,” etc.

“When I was young,” Mlima says at the start “I was taught by my grandmother to listen to the night, really listen, for the rains in the distance, listen to the rustling of the brush, for the cries of friends or foe.” It was “a time of plenty,” before the “drought and the madness.”

That pantheistic time has been shattered, is being shattered, by those with guns, with bows and arrows. Instigators and supporters alike are separated from nature, which they are then free to exploit.

Three actors portray myriad characters with disregard for age or gender. Kevin Mambo, Jojo Gonzalez and Ito Aghayere are adept at becoming different people, with varying accents, helped by Jennifer Moeller’s costumes and Cookie Jordan’s hair and makeup designs. Riccardo Hernandez’s pristine set, as lit by Lap Chi Chu allows for smooth transitions. Essential to the evening’s success are the haunting sounds created by Darron L. West and the soulful music by Justin Hicks who plays his score live.

Jo Bonney’s subtle direction avoids grandstanding and doesn’t forgo the work’s underlining sensuality. Her understated evoking of time and place make the situations all the more strikingly real. “Mlima’s Tale” is rooted in the depressing idea that we are ensnared by the original sins of greed and selfishness. How else explain man’s cruelty?

--David A. Rosenberg
April 30, 2018

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