‘Mlima’s Tale’: Tusks of Ivory, Stalking the World

Posted April 15, 2018 9:57 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Those of you who don’t believe in ghosts are likely to think again after seeing “Mlima’s Tale,” Lynn Nottage’s beautiful, endlessly echoing portrait of a murder and its afterlife. In this taut, elegantly assembled production, which opened on Sunday night at the Public Theater, a magnificent specter stalks this planet, contaminating the lives of everyone he encounters.

As phantoms go, this one is of rare solidity — 4.8 meters and 180 kilos, to use the statistics as given by the man who dealt the fatal blow to the title character. Mind you, those figures refer only to what’s been wrested from the corpse and is destined to travel the world.

I mean the tusks of the mighty Mlima, a legendary elephant struck down by poachers on the savannas of a Kenyan game preserve. Killing him entirely, it turns out, isn’t possible. For wherever the ivory that once belonged to Mlima goes, so goes an entire baleful history of imperiled natural grandeur, leaving stains like marks of Cain on every one of its exploiters.

Sounds hokey, I know, like an environmentalist’s version of those creaky horror stories about the curses that lurk in mummy’s tombs. Yet Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner for drama, and her director, Jo Bonney, have shaped this story with such theatrical inventiveness and discipline that it never feels sensational, on the one hand, or pious, on the other.

In case you were wondering, the title character in this 80-minute, four-actor play is no mere airy metaphor but a figure of towering physical substance. Mlima the elephant is incarnated onstage with almost superhuman — and, yes, even supernatural — grace by Sahr Ngaujah, best known to New York audiences for playing the title role in the musical “Fela!” on Broadway. And his Mlima is just as imposing dead as alive.

This improbable illusion is achieved and sustained with such artful and ingenious simplicity that I almost hate to describe it to anyone who plans to see the play. “Mlima’s Tale” is a finely wrought fusion of elements from Brechtian theater, story theater and a once-scandalous Austrian play from the late 19th century.

That’s “La Ronde,” Arthur Schnitzler’s presentation of sex as a daisy chain of erotic encounters that crosses the borders of class and money. In that work (widely known among cinephiles for Max Ophuls’ ravishing 1950 film adaptation), one character from each scene becomes a part of the next, giving unsettlingly fleshly resonance to the idea that we’re all connected.

Nottage makes deft and fleet-footed use of the Schnitzler prototype of overlapping lives. The production traces the movement of Mlima’s tusks from the elephant’s death through their sale and subsequent smuggling out of Kenya until their final, grim apotheosis as an exquisite ivory set in the penthouse of a rich connoisseur.

Each of the people involved in this sequence of plunder and commerce is played by one of three enjoyable, mutable performers. They are Kevin Mambo, Jojo Gonzalez and Ito Aghayere, who keep reincarnating themselves via quick changes of costume (by Jennifer Moeller), stance and accent.

Those portrayed include the Somali poachers who kill Mlima; the corrupt police chief who first sells the tusks and his unwitting nephew, a park warden; a media-savvy Kenyan bureaucrat; a Chinese businessman; a ship captain; and a master ivory carver. Each character, inhabiting a rung on an ascending ladder of power, is very clearly defined but without grotesque caricature.

Such restraint is appropriate, since Nottage has not set out to create a gallery of predatory villains. All those involved in Mlima’s slaughter and the sale of his tusks have understandable motives for acting as they do.

Similarly, even the most seemingly noble among them are ultimately tainted by self-serving motives. It is Nottage’s point that unconditional virtue is nonexistent within the international system of economic power that keeps the play’s world spinning.

As she demonstrated in her two Pulitzer winners — “Ruined,” about sexual slavery in Congo, and “Sweat,” about blue-collar disaffection in the rust belt of Pennsylvania — Nottage does deep and conscientious research for her plays. Here, she packs a wealth of cultural, political and economic detail into each scene, from Maasai superstitions to the statistics of the illegal ivory trade.

Yet the facts, figures and folklore never feel jimmied in; the exchange of information among the characters is fluid and always appropriate to the circumstances. If “Mlima’s Tale” is didactic theater, it never comes across as a finger-wagging lecture.

That’s partly because of the arresting visual inventiveness throughout. Riccardo Hernandez’s blank slate of a set is transformed into a globe-circling array of settings by jewel-colored light and shadow (Lap Chi Chu is the whiz of a lighting designer), projected poetic words and saturating, insinuating sound (by Darron L. West, with music written and performed by Justin Hicks).

You’re probably still wondering, though, about Mlima himself and how we are seduced into accepting any actor as a dead elephant. We first see Ngaujah in stately, trunk-brandishing silhouette against a bright night sky. We hold that initial image in our heads when this figure begins to move, regally and angrily, and to speak in a rich, sensory language of his world and his past as he perceives them.

“If you really listen,” he says, “our entire history is on the wind.” His future, too, becomes elementally pervasive, as Ngaujah shows up as a living shadow in every subsequent scene. Most disturbingly, we see him alone in the cargo hold of a ship, inevitably summoning thoughts of African people of earlier years abducted into barbaric slavery.

After Mlima’s death, Ngaujah smears his torso and face with white paint, evoking the ritual body painting of African tribes. That paint has a way of transferring itself, as an emblem of complicity, onto everyone with whom Mlima comes in contact. Don’t be surprised if at the end of this transfixing show, you find yourself checking your own clothes for remnants of the same substance.


Production Notes:

‘Mlima’s Tale’

Through May 20 at the Public Theater, Manhattan; 212-967-7555, publictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.

By Lynn Nottage; directed by Jo Bonney; sets by Riccardo Hernandez; costumes by Jennifer Moeller; lighting by Lap Chi Chu; sound by Darron L. West; hair and makeup by Cookie Jordan; composer and music director, Justin Hicks; fight director, Thomas Schall; production stage manager, Linda Marvel; stage manager, Janelle Caso; associate artistic director and director of Public Theater productions, Mandy Hackett; general manager, Jeremy Adams. Presented by the Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, artistic director, Patrick Willingham, executive director.

Cast: Sahr Ngaujah (Mlima), Kevin Mambo (Player 1), Jojo Gonzalez (Player 2), Ito Aghayere (Player 3) and Justin Hicks (Musician).