“When I was young I was taught by my grandmother to listen to the night.” The shirtless and magnificent Sahr Ngaujah kicks off and concludes Mlima’s Tale with direct address speeches that, along with Jo Bonney’s staging of the play, evoke deep dark spaces, inter-generational wisdom and danger in the distance.
Playwright Lynn Nottage entices us at first with poetic language that could apply to any elder communicating to a younger generation. “She’d say if you really listen, our entire history is on the wind,” Mlima recalls. Then we learn our narrator is an adult Kenyan elephant of such advanced age and magnificent tusks that national laws were designed to protect him, shifting the lens of the story. The play’s initial monologue — Mlima’s last living words — tells us of life on the Kenyan savanna, running from illegal poachers, and missing his mate and offspring. Mlima haunts the balance of the play, much like young screenwriter Joe Gillis, in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, narrates his own story after his death at the hands of nefarious forces within commercial Hollywood and his own ambitions. Mlima the elephant, on the other hand, is chased by the greed of others and not at all complicit in his own demise.
Nottage’s intermission-less structure that borrows from the framework of rondeau (poetry in 13 lines in three stanzas): a series of 13 interactions between characters that depict the compromise and greed of the illicit ivory trade. I must admit that these details — how many interactions, how many characters — were clarified for me by reading the script, whereas I often found the experience of the play, at the Public Theater’s Martinson Hall, an amorphous wash. If I was often unclear precisely which character is which and how all the pieces link together, however, I did sense that each little step, interaction and compromise does lead to the next in the plot. From a bribed customs official to the artist who neglects to investigate the provenance of the ivory he uses, all the characters are complicit on the journey of Mlima’s tusks to become an ivory carving.
Ngaujah applies white makeup to his face and torso to represent Mlima’s transformation from regal elephant in life to commodity in death. All the while, the story is handed off from scene to scene: the poor freelance poacher meets up with his bullying boss; the boss meets up with a complicit game warden; the complicit game warden meets a bureaucrat. From there: bureaucrat to journalist to businessman to handlers to shipping crew to compromised customs agent to ivory trader to ivory carver to rich purchaser of the work, in exchanges ranging from overt evil and simple greed to economic need and the self-satisfied appreciation of the final artistic product.
There is a spare scenic design, by Riccardo Hernandez, lit in planes of primary colors by Lap Chi Chu. The multiple stages of the ivory trade are portrayed by three performers (Kevin Mambo, Jojo Gonzalez, Ito Aghayere) taking on male and female roles with equal skill. Characters, however, can still be confusing due the speed of the scene changes and, and costuming perhaps too detailed for theatrical clarity by Jennifer Moeller. Is this khaki-costumed character the warden or the poacher? Could a more abstract costume and color coding assist the flow of the stories?
Musician Justin Hicks, visible throughout the performance downstage right, works hand-in-glove with the sound designer Darron L West to craft a world where “thunder is not yet rain” and magnificent wind instruments evoke an elephant’s trumpeting roar. All the while, Mlima silently observes, sometimes touching a character responsible for shepherding his tusks to the next commercial transaction, leaving a white handprint on a sleeve to mark the trail. And then, just as Joe Gillis observed from the grave, Mlima speaks after his death. “If you can hear me, don’t come to mourn me,” he tells us, warning the members of his tribe to protect themselves. “Run! Run! RUN!”
It’s both an emotional and political conclusion. There are things we can and must do to end the continuing ivory trade, from surveillance of game preserves to verification of pieces and each transaction along the way. Perhaps Mlima’s Tale will accelerate the urgency.