Lynn Nottage has written a powerful play, creatively performed by a superb cast and spellbindingly directed by Jo Bonney. “Mlima’s Tale” takes aim at the wonton destruction of elephants for profit in the ivory trade, and it succeeds by combining impressionism and reality to make for a unique theater experience.
Mlima, a grand and mighty elephant, is embodied by the remarkable Sahr Ngaujah, who uses his sinewy body to convey the majesty and nobility of an imposing example of an endangered species hunted down for greed. Nottage’s play is based on the article “The Ivory Highway” by Damon Tabor. There is an hypnotic score by Justin Hicks, who also performs as the accompanying musician, and the spartan scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez relies on sliding panels to cover and uncover the action.
In addition to Ngaujah as Mlima, there are three players, Kevin Mambo, Jojo Gonzalez and Ito Aghayere, who handle an assortment of roles dealing with the hunting, the corrupt selling of ivory and the crass wealthy who pay big money to possess the rare spoils derived from the slaughter.
The players are very versatile, but the show’s magic rests largely on the impressionistic portrayal of Mlima. A scene in which we are meant to experience the tearing apart of the murdered elephant is wrenching, thanks to the magisterial physicality of Ngaujah and his balletic artistry.
Nottage has had various achievements, such as “Sweat” and “Ruined,” but this work is in a class by itself for its concept and integration of unusual theatrical elements. Hovering as part of the staging is the imagery denoting the tragic fate of Mlima, and in parts Ngaujah stands as a towering sculpture to keep Mlima symbolically in our vision.
This is one of the season’s most essential and meaningful productions, with an impact far beyond its 80-minute intermission-less length. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-967-7555. Reviewed May 10, 2018.