Lynn Nottage has tackled a variety of injustices, from factory layoffs harming a dedicated community of Pennsylvania workers in “Sweat” to the mutilation and dehumanization of women in the war-torn Democractic Republic of Congo in “Ruined.” Her work has always been political in dimension and personal in scope, with characters we care about claiming their pain and occasional triumph. The same is true of “Mlima’s Tale,” a Midwest premiere now being produced by Griffin Theatre — even when the play’s tragedy is that some characters do not care enough.
Though Mlima (David Goodloe) is a “big tusker” elephant, rather than a human being, he tells us about his life, his grandmother, his children, and his partner whom he loves. We identify with this creature who has a life independent of those who wish to harm him. We see him for who he is, a proud fighter and loving family figurehead. He lives on the Serengeti in Kenya, and while he is nominally protected by understaffed park rangers, poachers murder Mlima in the opening minutes of the play. This is a spoiler, but revealing such brutality to you is only part of Nottage’s project. Mlima’s body is buried, but his tusks are removed and sent into the city, where the chief of police (Lewon Johns) and shady businessmen (Michael Turrentine and Ben Chang) work to send the ivory out of the country and to an international buyer (Sarah Lo), ensnaring a conflicted ship captain (Collin McShane) and sneaky ivory dealer (Christopher Thomas Pow) along the way. As parts of Mlima travel to Malaysia and Vietnam, his spirit travels alongside all those who choose to ferry him. Mlima’s tusks are prized for their perfect symmetry, but that is all anyone sees of the ghost literally haunting them onstage; Mlima watches and waits and marks each transgressor with white chalk dust, announcing their sins to the audience.
Director Jerrell L. Henderson and movement designer Jacinda Ratcliffe do remarkable work with Goodloe. His death scene is horrifying to watch; he twitches, with one arm reaching out in warning to the elephants far ahead of him. He takes up space in quiet ways, always ready to claim his poachers — moving not quite as an elephant, and not quite as a man. He is mesmerizing in the role, and the connection between the destruction (and deconstruction) that happens to an elephant and the destruction that happens to men of color around the world is deeply apparent in Henderson’s staging. Every character involved handles Mlima’s tusks, but none of them see him standing right there.
As Mlima travels farther from home, his steps become less and less certain; he, too, is covered in white chalk and paint, and he slurs his words, unable to be who he is, dissected and taken violently from his life and home. It is a haunting sight. Even when the actors onstage all move together as one collective elephant, there is no release. Because there is no safety in numbers, only separation and advantage taken by others.
Nottage is the best living playwright in America, and her intelligent stagecraft is on full display here. With each two-handed scene — between poachers, between a park ranger and the chief of police, between a customs agent and the ship captain, between a buyer and seller — the stakes actually decrease. We want the park ranger to obtain Mlima’s tusks, but he is marked when he accepts selling the press a lie; he is marked despite his good intentions and desires for his country. When the ship captain accepts paying a bribe to get out of his smuggling operation, Mlima marks him; but his choice is less involved with Mlima, less connected to where he has traveled from. The farther Mlima gets from home, the easier it becomes for people to make ignorant, even willfully immoral decisions. This is how the world works, Nottage shows us. The less we see, the less we care about the world around us. And the less we care, the less willing we are to do the right thing. Which is why Mlima haunts us, and stays with us long after the play ends.
The ensemble is wonderful. Turrentine and Johns play poachers, relatives, and business acquaintances all with specificity and bite. Each relationship they create is distinct, and each relationship is tainted by power, experience, and opportunity. Pow is a delight as the less than honest moneymaker, who believes in beauty to the point that he cares little where Mlima’s tusks came from; and Chang is solid as a businessman, customs agent, and artist who don’t ask questions. When the ensemble becomes elephants, they are far more peaceful and purposeful than when they are humans. And when they become psychic tormentors to Mlima, their indifference is affecting.
Scenic designer Joy Ahn works with simple elements: ropes that can bind objects and cloths that can cover what isn’t meant to be seen. Jared Gooding’s lighting is simple and elegant, highlighting the lush difference between the plains and where Mlima ends up. L.J. Luthringer’s sound brings not only pounding urgency but jarring whispers from Mlima’s past life.
This production tells a complete and chilling tale about what is lost when we forget there are lives beyond our lives, and creatures and people that deserve protection beyond ourselves.
DICE RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”
TEN WORD SUMMARY: An elephant’s tusks are poached, but his ghost haunts us.
Show: “Mlima’s Tale”
Company: Griffin Theatre Company
Venue: Raven Theatre Chicago ( 6157 N Clark St)