Theater review by Regina Robbins
In the opening scene of Mlima’s Tale, the title character, an African elephant played by Sahr Ngaujah, shares his memories of a long, happy life on the savanna. Tragically, Mlima is doomed: His extraordinary tusks, which have made him famous and beloved in his Kenyan homeland, have also made him a target. No sooner have we met this magnificent creature than we see him cut down by poachers. The story that playwright Lynn Nottage wants to tell, it turns out, is not about whether Mlima will die, but why.
Director Jo Bonney’s beautiful production traces the path of Mlima’s prized tusks through the international ivory market. Lap Chi Chu’s gorgeous lighting design and Riccardo Hernandez’s economical but evocative sets take us from a game reserve near Mombasa, Kenya, to the haunts of the rich and powerful. Those who admit no ambiguity on this subject will be challenged; though there’s plenty of greed on display, there is also the desperation of poverty, as well as devotion to cultural practices that are thousands of years old.
Mlima’s Tale has an exceptional cast, whose four actors of color play multiple roles (sometimes transracially). The world Nottage has brought to the stage is rich with detail, its characters complex and engaging. The epic journey falls short only in its foreseeable and somewhat anticlimactic ending. I’m glad I met Mlima; I just wish he had been able to say a little more.
Public Theater (Off Broadway). By Lynn Nottage. Directed by Jo Bonney. With Sahr Ngaujah. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission.
Follow Time Out Theater on Twitter: @TimeOutTheater
Keep up with the latest news and reviews on our Time Out Theater Facebook page