Whether Lynn Nottage’s subject is human-trafficked prostitutes during a civil war in the Congo (Ruined), or the struggling working class in a crumbling Pennsylvania factory town (Sweat), or an overlooked and underappreciated actress in midcentury Hollywood (By the Way, Meet Vera Stark), or a lonely seamstress a century ago in New York (Intimate Apparel), the lyrical playwright has always proven herself fascinated by the downtrodden and disrespected. Consistently, her work has endowed these figures with the sort of luminous, personal voice that society seeks to deny.
In her newest work, that task extends—just as beautifully, movingly, and powerfully—to an elephant.
Mlima’s Tale, now receiving its world premiere at The Public Theater under the keen, insightful direction of Jo Bonney, is a story of poaching, greed, and corruption on an international scale, but mostly it is the story of the elephant named Mlima. He was one of the last “big tuskers” in Kenya, a national treasure among an elephant population decimated by poachers, before he too fell victim to the ivory trade. This death happens in the first scene, after Sahr Ngaujah as Mlima delivers a passionate monologue about his ancestry and love of family, and from there Nottage sets herself the difficult challenge of arousing the same empathy for an animal that she has done so effectively for people throughout her career.
But Nottage is a master at her craft, and so with the estimable contributions of Ngaujah and Bonney, she meets this challenge with great success. Unadorned by elaborate costuming or puppetry, Ngaujah evokes Mlima with only the subtle, lumbering grace of his movements (by the time his tusks are carved into statues, Ngaujah has established the connection to the animal so fully that every chisel’s blow seems like a fresh wound grinding into soft, vulnerable skin). Nottage is far more concerned with the human-like soul of her subject than the animal form, and so Ngaujah concentrates most of his efforts on revealing the dignity at the elephant’s core. Once robbed of his life in the opening scene, Mlima’s ghost will haunt the rest of the play’s focus on the twisting, corrupt international ivory trade, the effectiveness of which depends almost entirely on the complex portrait that Nottage and Ngaujah give us of the elephant at the play’s opening.
Ngaujah’s three castmates, Kevin Mambo, Jojo Gonzalez, and Ito Aghayere, each shift effectively and impressively between many roles. They are poachers, corrupt police, weak government officials, smugglers, ships’ captains, compromised customs agents, and so on throughout the murky waters of the international ivory trade. The role shifting underscores and emphasizes the facelessness of the ivory trade: the play suggests that if one corrupt cop isn’t part of the problem, then another will be, and so on throughout the chain. No point in fussing over the individual identities: Nottage is interested here in the grander scale of the ivory trade.
Still, for all its considerable political and social commentary, Mlima’s Tale is a play about an elephant, one that dies ten minutes into the play. Nottage’s great achievement here is in offering a round, complex, and quite stunning portrait of this animal’s pain and deep emotions. And all of that comes to life on the Public’s stage through the inventive, sensitive performance of Ngaujah. Without tricks of theater or staging, the actor finds communion with the soul of an elephant, at once revealing unexpected emotions and signaling that more oceans of passion reside within Mlima than the stage could contain.
Mlima’s Tale runs through May 20, 2018. More production info can be found here.