Sahr Ngaujah Photo: Joan Marcus
Lynn Nottage explores the cruel backdrop to the secret
the elephant ivory trade was banned in
in 1990, hoping to protect the species, the regulations were and are routinely
violated. Even game-park rangers trying to preserve
elephants are often at the mercy of poachers and corrupt officials who lust
after ivory’s artistic value.
Enter Mlima’s Tale, at the Public Theater, the latest
effort from Lynn Nottage, who won the Pulitzer Prize
for Sweat. Set in
the play posits the fate of Mlima (portrayed by a
moving Sahr Ngaujah), an
elephant renowned throughout
for his age
and majestic bearing.
of decades of ivory hunting, big tusks are rare, which only heightens Mlima’s worth.
Mlima means “mountain” in Swahili and the idea for the work is
believed to have come from the poaching of the beloved Kenyan elephant Satao, at
by supertitles that read like a book of African proverbs, such as “Thunder is
not yet rain” and “Even the night has ears,” Nottage takes audiences on a sad journey — all from the elephant’s point of view. From
the slaughter of the famed Mlima to the outcome of
its prized tusks, the well-constructed play is a travelogue of greed and
En route, we meet hunters, custom officers, buyers and art
dealers, all played by a talented ensemble: Kevin Mambo, Jojo Gonzalez and Ito Aghayere.
Nottage’s Sweat was a tough look at a factory closing in
, and its searing impact
on workers. She brings an equally critical eye to the issue of poaching.
Kevin Mambo, Ito Aghayere, Sahr Ngaujah and Jojo Gonzalez. Photo: Joan Marcus
difference is that Sweat was a
nuanced, layered, multi-themed effort. Mlima, despite Director Jo Bonney’s crisp direction and pacing, is a one-note thesis:
The ivory trade is lethal.
World Wildlife campaigners estimate poachers kill 30,000 African elephants
every year, encouraged by buyers in
. This year, all trade in ivory and ivory products
was banned in
. However, the new anti-ivory
laws do not cover
, a major ivory
trading hub. Most customers, reports the BBC, are
believed to be mainland Chinese.
despite conservation efforts and well-intentioned legislation, the lucrative
trade persists. (Mlima’s tusks
will command $1.1 million in
play is a sympathetic plea to protect these glorious creatures, and one
sympathizes with Mlima’s plight from inception to
Ito Aghayere and Jojo Gonzalez Photo:
capture the emotional stakes, Justin Hicks composed and performs live music,
aided by Darron L. West’s evocative sound design.
unlike her previous works, Sweat and Ruined, there isn’t a dramatic arc; Mlima’s Tale is more documentary than drama.
Still, there is a strong force behind the play that decries the avarice and
cruelty of humans willing to slaughter defenseless animals for the sake of
that may be Nottage’s final point. There is no
morality in a world that pointlessly kills for dubious gain. She also slams the
criminality behind the exploitative industry in a final ironic note. Mlima’s killer gets paid $250 for his crime; the final
owner of his transformed tusks, happy to shell out millions, gets away scot-free.
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette St.
Running time: 80 minutes without an
intermission. (Through June 3)
For tickets: publictheater.org/reserve/index.aspx?performanceNumber=36562