Dallas — Remember the clarity of the medieval morality play Everyman? Where a man enters the stage and encounters, in allegorical characters, the evil obstacles to his salvation, including greed, lust and bribery, before he exits the other side?
Now imagine a legendary African elephant murdered at the outset by poachers seeking his perfectly symmetrical tusks, and the animal haunting for 80 writhing, accusing minutes, scene after scene, all those who lust after his perfect ivory and profit by his death. But here, the question is less about the salvation of the elephant’s soul than the very survival of his species. Morality plays are not about the hereafter in these late days.
Mlima’s Tale, Lynn Nottage’s play tracing the movement of poached Kenyan game reserve ivory from the butchered corpse to the final buyer, premiered in 2018 at New York City’s Public Theater. The play, which takes its factual base from Damon Tabor’s 2014 article, “The Ivory Highway” (credited in the program) opens Second Thought Theatre’s season. We learn, among other grim facts, that elephants are being destroyed faster than they can procreate. First-time director Tiana Kaye Blair and choreographer Bridget Moore mount a production of compelling poetic language, strong dramatic action and brutal detail when called for.
Nottage’s plays are not for sissies or those in search of an explicit villain or fairy tale hero. She’s won the Pulitzer Prize for drama twice — the only woman to have accomplished that feat. Ruined, about a brothel-running woman in the Congo who takes in battered girls, and Sweat, about the volatile breakdown of a community when the steel plant shuts down, both make us see that poverty and vice go hand in hand in human affairs, and thrive when people can’t make a living with honest work. Her 2004 play Intimate Apparel has been made into an opera (for which she wrote the libretto), and is currently playing at Lincoln Center Theater. Here, Nottage invents the ghost of an elephant to bleed for just one magnificent species representing our multiple human ravages of the creatures we share a planet with.
Strutting, muscled Mlima (graceful, taut McClendon “Mickey” Giles), an elephant in the Kenyan preserve, barely has time to tell us how far he’s run before appearing stage center on set designer Jocelyn Girigorie’s simple, effective set, featuring a huge, glittering sun shifting colors with the action on the savannah.
Dancing and running at once, Mlima’s every move is perfectly reflected by sound designer Mason York and onstage musician Nigel Newton on marimba, a djembe drum and various percussion instruments that sound like rain or wind blowing and other natural sounds. As Mlima’s ghost, Giles covers his body with white paint, and becomes increasingly aggressive as he hears the lies and deals made over his ripped-out tusks. As he moves up and down and across the playing space, Mlima encounters many characters — the poachers, corrupt officials, and African and Asian businessmen engaged in the illegal ivory trade. We also meet a suspicious ship captain and a famous, aging sculptor who recognizes the rare beauty of Mlima’s coveted tusks.
All roles are played with clarity and fluidity by actors Sam Henderson, Kris D’sha and Christopher Lew, with a swift change of costumes, by Amy Poe, plus a shift of body movement and accent. Terrific ensemble work and direction, in that actors moving from one scene to another in minutes instantly become other people with new bribes and different worries. Henderson’s cocky official is just right. Lew’s businessman in his Italian suit is so smart and charming, it’s easy to see how he manipulates those around him.
As in her other work, Nottage’s dialogue bristles with the energy and authenticity of real life. Poetic sayings of the Maasai people appear fleetingly on a neon board above the action, as Mlima’s ghost follows the path of his tusks. “A single stick will smoke, but it will not burn,” we read, as it becomes clear that the guilt and corruption is spread so thin, it is hard to name a criminal. Real life reflects that poetry. The poacher has to feed a family, and so does the gamekeeper on the take. It’s hard to single out a purely evil villain on the way up the chain, except perhaps the rich collector at the top of the market-driven demand for ivory. Even there, Nottage gives the lover of design sumptuously carved from an elephant’s body part a moment to express his driving aesthetic.
Leaving the whirling bodies and the butchered elephant’s ghost at the end of the show, I felt anger and sadness, and I wanted someone punished. But Nottage’s theatrical tale of one creature’s demise and grief is not that simply brought to a close. Mlima’s Tale makes us see how many desperate people are implicated in a single crime, and how our own morality and survival are bound up with that of many living entities other than those of our own relentless species.