[Full article published in The Clyde Fitch Report, April 17, 2018.]
“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.