Friday, April 20, 2018

206 (2017-2018): Review: MLIMA'S TALE (seen April 19, 2018)

"The Elephant in the Room"

According to the International Affairs page of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s website, “African elephants are being poached at unprecedented levels to supply the illegal ivory trade, and the United States is among the largest markets for illegal ivory. We’ve implemented this near-total ban to ensure that U.S. domestic markets do not contribute to the decline of elephants in the wild.” If you own anything made of ivory and wish to sell it within the US borders, you must, of course, comply with very strict regulations, particularly with regard to when you obtained it.
Ito Aghayere, Jojo Gonzalez, Kevin Mambo, Sahr Ngaujah. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Bans, either national or international, of course, have not stopped the ongoing slaughter of elephants, whose tusks are of enormous value on the black market and continue to be poached. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s (Ruined, Sweat) consistently riveting new play at the Public, Mlima’s Tale, is a sharply stinging dramatization of just how this horrific process works, and why the world must be concerned.
Sahr Ngaujan. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Although deeply researched, Mlima’s Tale is not a docudrama but a highly artistic exposé of a scandalous wildlife dilemma (an elephant is killed every 15 minutes) that fills its never faltering 80 minutes with fascinating information contained in dramatically compelling scenes.

Nottage skillfully (but not slavishly) deploys an episodic format roughly similar to Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde, an episodic play in which one of the two characters in each scene appears in the succeeding scene with someone new, creating a daisy chain eventually tying the final scene to the first.

The poaching, selling, shipping, smuggling, carving, selling, and display of elephant tusks is concentrated in the tale of a single African, 50-year-old tusker known as Mlima, famous for his extraordinary tusks, and presumably under the protection of the Kenyan wildlife authorities.

Nottage begins by introducing Mlima himself but not in any recognizably elephantine way. Instead, we see—on a bare stage backed by a blue sky and a large moon suggesting night on the savannah—a powerfully muscled black man (Sahr Ngaujah). His head is shaved, his glistening body is dressed only in the baggy trousers of an African villager, and he moves as sinuously as a dancer. 
Jojo Gonzalez, Ito Aghayere. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Mlima's trumpeting voice pours out his memories, the lessons he’s learned from his elders, his ancestral past, his loves, his fears. Darron L. West’s outstanding sound design and intriguing original music by Justin Hicks, who performs it from a table below the stage at audience left, adds immeasurably to Ngaujah’s indelible performance.
Ito Aghayere, Sahr Ngaujah, Kevin Mambo. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Then comes his horrible killing at the hands of a pair of Somalian poachers (Jojo Gonzalez and Ito Aghayere); the negotiations between the older poacher and a ruthless ivory dealer (Kevin Mambo); a discussion between the dealer and a demoralized game warden (Aghayere); and one between the warden and the white Kenyan Director of Wildlife (Mambo). The characters range from unquestionably mercenary to morally conflicted; all, however, regardless of their individual human needs, are complicit.
Kevin Mambo, Sahr Ngaujah. Photo: Joan Marcus.
These scenes are followed by others featuring, for example, a Chinese diplomat (Gonzalez), a Tanzanian businessman (Aghayere), and an American ship captain (Gonzalez). Meanwhile, the tusks make their way through Vietnam to the Beijing apartment of a nouveau riche Chinese woman (Aghayere), who shows off to guests the beautifully carved tusks she’s purchased for a fortune.  
Ito Aghayere, Sahr Ngaujah, Kevin Mambo. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Sahr Ngaujah, Jojo Gonzalez, Kevin Mambo. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Early on, Mlima’s spirit covers his body and face in stripes of ivory paint. Then, standing by ominously, a look of grim judgment on his face, he looms over every scene as, one by one, the characters reveal their participation, implicit or explicit, in the ivory trade. With unforgettable solemnity, he moves past them, subtly touching them on the shoulder, hand, or sleeve, marking their collusion with the taint of ivory. 
Sahr Ngaujah. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Jo Bonney has directed with exquisite skill on Riccardo Hernandez’s simple set of sliding panels, gorgeously lit by Lap Chi Chu. Projections of what appear to be folk sayings, some of them redolent with meaning, accompany the scene changes, among them “No matter how full the river, it still wants to grow” and “The teeth are smiling, but is the heart?” 
Kevin Mambo, Ito Aghayere, Sahr Ngaujah, Jojo Gonzalez. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Ngaujah, gifted with physical and vocal beauty, makes the pachyderm a hauntingly tragic presence; he need merely stand there, silently watching, for you to feel how deeply he’s invested. Aghayere, Gonzalez, and Mambo, his costars—with the expert aid of Jennifer Moeller’s terrific costumes—play their multiple roles with exceptional versatility, altering their accents and attitudes with spot-on accuracy. They provide just the right degree of three-dimensionality to characters who could easily be cardboard stereotypes. 

With Mlima’s Tale Nottage once again demonstrates her commitment to socially important themes by engaging them in dramatically urgent and theatrically expressive ways. Her talent is the elephant in the room, a talent that grows with her every outing.


Public Theater/Martinson Hall
425 Lafayette Ave., NYC
Through June 3