Structured like Arthur Schnitzler’s wicked La Ronde, Mlima begins with a harrowing hunting scene. Mlima, the giant elephant, is portrayed with dignity and astonishing physical vitality by Sahr Ngaujah (Fela!, “Master Harold” …and the boys), in traditional African garb (character-perfect costumes by Jennifer Moeller) and colorful stripes of makeup. His opening moments involve an internal dialogue describing his dire situation chased by hunters. He speaks of his tight family connections and his regrets just before he is slaughtered.
As the story moves up the food chain from those poverty-stricken hunters-for-hire (JoJo Gonzalez and Ito Aghayere) to the clueless nouveau riche dilettante (Aghayere) who proudly displays her ridiculous chotchkes made of Mlima’s tusks, Mlima reveals in great detail the awfulness of poaching.
At each stage—poachers, their boss (Kevin Mambo), the captain of the ship that secrets the ivory out of Africa (Gonzalez—the three stalwart actors play all the roles), the customs officer, the artist and art dealer who repurpose the precious ivory—money changes hands and many winks are exchanged.
Justin Hicks provides live music (which he composed) and sound effects that provide atmospheric ambiance to each scene, aided by Darron L. West’s sound design.
Projected titles—“Thunder is not Yet Rain,” “Even the Night has Ears,” “No Matter how full the River, It still wants to grow,” etc.—punctuate the scenes adding a slight pretentiousness to the play. Riccardo Hernandez’ adequate scenery consists mostly of appropriate pieces of furniture and projections.
Nottage and director Jo Bonney manage to turn Mlima’s Tale into a forceful morality tale without beating the audience over the head. The members of the evil network that move the illicit ivory are hateful but human. Only Ngaujah’s Mlima, who appears as a powerful spirit in every scene, marking the marketers with his body paints, takes on superhuman qualities, from his stately walk to his incredible postures and moving speeches, he looms over everyone, almost flying out p
ast the fourth wall.
Mlima’s Tale (extended through June 3, 2018)
Martinson Hall, The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.orrg
Running time: 80 minutes without intermission