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Theatre in Review: Mlima's Tale (The Public Theater)

Sahr Ngaujah. Photo: Joan Marcus

Mlima's Tale begins with an atrocity, then traces the long chain of corruption that follows; the playwright Lynn Nottage has constructed a tale of the black market ivory trade, laying bare the bribes, deception, and political maneuvering that facilitate it. The title character is a magnificent elephant, more than half a century old, gifted with enormous tusks that make him a point of pride in Kenya, where he lives on a preserve. As played by Sahr Ngaujah, he is a towering figure of dignity; as the play begins, he alerts his fellow creatures that danger is near, offering, by way of example, "my dear mother calling me handsome, but it was a warning that I'd come to understand as my tusks grew longer and more perfect than my brothers' and sisters'. I hear the first thunder that awakened me to fear. My first sneeze that accompanied the acrid stench of men." It is no small feat to present an anthropomorphic creation like Mlima onstage without cutesiness or sentimentality, but Nottage's words are rocklike and implacable; we immediately see what an astonishing creation Mlima is, how unacceptable his killing will be.

Murder follows with dismaying swiftness; Mlima's body is mutilated and his tusks taken. Borrowing the structure of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde, we follow the tusks' progress through an international network of smugglers, customs officials, government representatives, and artists. Geedi, the hunter, was engaged to provide eight normal-sized tusks; Githinji, his employer, is horrified to instead receive only two -- those taken from Mlima. The dealer's fears are well-founded: The animal is too well-known -- almost a national symbol -- and his remains will be difficult to move on the market. This gives Githinji a golden opportunity to cheat Geedi, paying him a fraction of his fee; it isn't the only example in the play of ad hoc connivance.

Githinji may be a dealer in illegal goods, but his nephew, Wamwara, a regional warden, knows that his job is on the line over this crime and he wants the culprit's name. "Unfortunately," he says, "this is going to invite the eyes of the international community. And you know how these white people love their animals." All he gets from his uncle is the offer of cash -- which, unusually for this play, is turned down -- and a promise to investigate. Facing Andrew, Kenya's director of wildlife, Wamwara can only cite the arrests of three small-time poachers -- Githinji's pallid offering -- but Andrew, desperate for something to show at a press conference, pressures Wamwara to confirm that the fellows are the likely suspects.

Meanwhile, the wheels of shadow capitalism begin to turn. Guoxi, a mid-level attaché at the Chinese embassy who attends the press conference, subtly expresses his interest in the tusks to Hassan, a Tanzanian businessman. Hassan contacts Aziz, who has been hired to surreptitiously transport the tusks, about redirecting them to Guoxi. And so it goes, until, buried under a consignment of lumber, their transport eased by a few well-placed cash payments, the tusks arrive in the Vietnam atelier of Master Yee. There's something almost sickening about the way he appraises the tusks, acknowledging their owner, yet oblivious to their moral cost: "A strong bull gave us these. Solid, gorgeous color. Smooth, and surprisingly unblemished. You see the rings, you can almost determine his age." From there, refashioned into artwork, the tusks end up in the foyer of Alice, acquisitive wife of a Chinese Internet millionaire.

There's nothing especially surprising about Nottage's tale -- from the beginning, it's clear that it will not end well -- but her narrative method is so elegant and her character sketches so incisive that they keep us vitally interested in the whole sorry story. A trio of actors -- Kevin Mambo, Jojo Gonzalez, and Ito Aghayere cover all the roles, swapping out characters with disarming ease. (The achievement of Aghayere, who plays male and female roles ranging from Wamwara to Alice, is especially impressive.) Despite being killed in the first few minutes, Ngaujah's Mlima never goes away; covered in white body paint, he remains a watchful presence, and, sooner or later, he will put a hand on each character, leaving behind a white stain that is a mark of his or her complicity.

Beginning with her adept handling of the well-chosen cast, Jo Bonney's direction allows Mlima's Tale to unfold in unusually seamless fashion. Riccardo Hernandez's extremely spare set design is marked by occasional furniture pieces and sliding panels that wipe out one scene in favor of the next. The imagery of video content creator Michael Commendatore -- setting suns, enormous full moons, color washes, and the gnomic statements that open each scene (example: "No matter how full the river, it still wants to grow") -- are essential to the overall mood. Lap Chi Chu's lighting carves the bodies out of the surrounding darkness; his treatment of Ngaujah is especially stunning. Jennifer Moeller's costumes, aided by Cookie Jordan's hair and makeup, allow for virtually instantaneous character transformations. Darron L. West's sound design provides fine, clear reinforcement for the live music played by composer Justin Hicks, along with a battery of effects, including thunder, birdsong, murmuring voices, seagulls, ships' horns, and bits of hip-hop music. (You'll feel in your gut the awful sound of an axe making contact with Mlima's body.)

Even as one is horrified by the implications of Mlima's Tale, it is easy to marvel once again at Nottage's versatility. She is unmatched in her skill at immersing herself in factual material out of which she creates a compelling drama with a style all its own. Without editorializing, it exposes how a vanishing species is being killed off to satisfy the vanity of a wealthy few. The narrative method of Mlima's Tale is understated, but an urgent alarm is being sounded, if only we will listen. -- David Barbour

(16 April 2018)

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