Tulis McCall

Mlima’s Tale is a shattering work.  The Public Theater’s production of Lynn Nottage‘s most recent play takes aim and does not miss, even though you might like it to.  This is the story of one of the last Kenyan Tusker Elephants – a decades old male elephant in Kenya whose tusks are of extraordinary quality.  The human attack on these exquisite animals starts at the ground level with need and ends up with greed.  Poachers are willing to take the risk of tracking and murdering.  The chain of command then passes up and up, with the tusks be coveted, carved and delivered.  The money gathers exponentially until at last the tusks land in a Beijing penthouse foyer as proof of the owner’s worth.

So how, you may ask, does a person tell the story of an elephant without an actual elephant?  Well, you start with a tight, unsparing script.  You have the good fortune to work with Jo Bonney as a director and four actors of immense talent: Ito Aghayere (Player 3), Jojo Gonzalez (Player 2), Kevin Mambo (Player 1), and Sahr Ngaujah as the tusker, Mlima.  And about this elephant: everyone knows that there are things, moves, that a body cannot do.  Cannot.  Nope.  Contortions and expansions that would turn a man into an elephant of physical, emotional and mental majesty.  It is pretty much impossible.  Lucky for us, Sahr Ngaujah did not get that memo, because the leap he takes into this impossible sphere is astonishing. His transformation into Mlima (meaning “Mountain”) is absolute.  Once he has us in his grip, he slowly dies from the hit of a poison arrow and becomes a spirit every equal of the animal, but not before we overhear the Masai saying that if you do not give an elephant a proper burial it will haunt you all your days.

Which is exactly what happens.  While Mlima’s body has been deserted, his spirit remains with his tusks.  The play rolls over and over as the poached tusks are handed from one unhappy human to another.  As we watch the story, the three actors perform at least a dozen characters moving in and out of the revolving door of commerce.  Each character undercuts the one before and lies to the next on the ladder up.  It is not an smooth trail.  These are famous tusks and not as easy to move as your every day ordinary poached tusks.  Care must be taken.  Attention must be paid so that attention is not paid at all until the tusks reach their final resting place, as it were.  Poachers to dealers to Park Rangers to Wildlife Directors to artists to art dealers.  Those who advocate for the elephants are underfunded and understaffed.  And the elusive foreigners lurk in the background – the non-African customers for the ivory who think of animals as pets that need food bought in grocery stores.  The trail leads through several countries and slimy hands.  People are betrayed or paid off or both.  Finally, the tusks make it into the hands of an artisan who insists to be told that the tusks were honestly got.  This spate of benevolence does not last long and soon the tusks end up going to the highest buyer.

MLIMA’S TALE; Photo by Joan Marcus

Along this road, Mlima’s tusks become more than pieces of ivory.  They are imbued with a living spirit who is never absent.  Sahr Ngaujah embodies the tusks as he did their owner.  At time stoic, other times slightly observing, other times a physical burden for the person serving the way station.  Each time he leaves the people on this trail, he smears them with a swath of white paint that appears to bleed from his very hands.  Like the Last Mohican, Mlima marks his trail.  I have been here and I have marked you all.

When Mlima reaches his final stop he summons the life force that kept him alive for 48 rains and bellows a final message to his descendants.  Do not mourn, he tells them.  RUN!!!

On the night I saw this show there was a collective intake of breath as the show faded to black.  The only reason we did not stand and cheer these performers was that we could barely move at all.  So completely had Mlima’s Tale captured us that we forgot where we were. Mlima’s Tale is a play not to be missed.

The Public Theatre provides these links on its site.  To contribute to saving elephants you can go to 96 Elephants at Wildlife Conservation Society; WildAid or the sculpture at Astor Place Goodbye Rhinos

MLIMA’S TALE – Written by Lynn Nottage; Directed by Jo Bonney

WITH – Ito Aghayere, Jojo Gonzalez, Kevin Mambo, and Sahr Ngaujah

Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design by Jennifer Moeller; Lighting Design by Lap Chi Chu; Sound Design by Darron L West; Composer and Music Director: Justin Hicks

The Public Theater (Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis; Executive Director, Patrick Willingham) presents Mlima’s Tale through Sunday, May 20. Public Theater Partner, Supporter, Member and full price tickets, starting at $75, can be accessed by calling (212) 967-7555, visiting www.publictheater.org, or in person at the Taub Box Office at The Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street.