Powerful and haunting “Mlima’s Tale” takes us deep into the worldwide ivory trade

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association, photo by Michael Brosilow.

Here is pretty much the summation of what I knew about the worldwide ivory trade before seeing Griffin Theatre Company’s brilliant Mlima’s Tale at the Raven Theatre: it’s illegal everywhere and it involves the senseless murder of elephants to harvest their tusks. By the end of the 90-minute play, though, I understood much more. Although playwright Lynn Nottage’s play is not, strictly speaking, didactic (in that it is in no way preachy), in the sure hands of director Jerrell L. Henderson this world-spanning story takes on a mesmerising life that is as indelible as the stains on the souls of those who facilitate its subject matter.

Mlima’s Tale begins somewhere deep in a giant game preserve in Kenya, where two poachers have, after a 40-day hunt, tracked down their quarry: Mlima, among the last of the big-tuskers, those bull elephants who have managed, by eluding their hunters, to live for many decades, growing tusks that are more and more prize-worthy. The play’s first scene shows us the end result of the hunt: the killing of the elephant, achieved by poison arrows so that no gunshot sounds will alert the rangers. (All poaching is forbidden on the preserve, but Mlima, a majestic animal much-revered in Kenya, is especially off-limits.) After a long, brutal, and harrowing death scene, Mlima (played by David Goodloe in a stellar performance), slips from this world only to begin haunting those responsible as his tusks begin their travels from Africa to Asia. 

A six-actor company (Lewon Johns, Michael Turrentine, Collin McShane, Ben Chang, Christopher Thomas Pow, and Sarah Lo) portrays all of the members of a long line of those who come into contact with the tusks, almost all of whom are literally marked for their immoral efforts by Mlima’s spirit, ritualistically using a white powder to paint two lines (for two tusks) on their faces. Of all who deal with the tusks—the poachers themselves, the man who hired them, the game warden who (hating himself for it) allows himself to be talked into placing the blame on men he knows didn’t do it, various officials, dealers and smugglers, along with a sculptor and the collector who ultimately buys the art that is made from Mlima’s remains—only one man, a ship captain played by McShane who refuses to take part in the scheme, escapes the lingering curse of the elephant. 

Nottage, however, is not interested in moralizing: almost all of these people have legitimate reasons for playing their parts, even if those reasons can’t really absolve them for taking Mlima’s life. Even the original poachers (Turrentine and Johns) have tremendous respect for their victim; they are only trying to feed their families—Turrentine’s character notes that his father taught him never to kill except for food—and the man who hired them to get ivory (also Johns) never expected them to target the huge elephant that had become a symbol for his country. He refuses to take on the immediately-recognizable tusks (though he does not escape Mlima’s mark branding him for what he has done).

Henderson’s highly stylized direction, effectively aided by a stark and malleable set designed by Joy Ahn as well as some stunning lighting by Jared Gooding and sound design by L.J. Luthringer, follows the tusks as they are clandestinely loaded onto a ship and taken across the ocean to the Vietnamese sculptor who will shape them into an enormous artwork. Along the way, we witness Goodloe-as-Mlima-as-the-tusks held in a cargo bay, straining against the confines of ropes that would bind him and dredging up images of other Africans shipped overseas in cargo bays, as well as the indignity of being subjected to pawing and handling by the sculptor and the buyer. The fact that they are gentle about it doesn’t make it any easier to take.

It’s Goodloe’s central performance, though, that makes this play work. While he obviously can’t make us actually believe that he is an elephant, his powerful and graceful presence and movement from the first scene on allows us to put aside what we know and accept him as the embodiment and spirit of the giant creature who has finally been downed after fighting off many past poachers, as the bullet wounds in his hide attest. Growing weaker and weaker the farther he moves from life and from Kenya, Goodloe’s Mlima is little more than a wraith by the end, though he comes to wretched life to pose as the artwork created from his tusks, which is always and forever attached to the horror of his murder.

It takes many, many people (and some seriously greased palms) to make the ivory trade work, as Nottage’s haunting and painful play makes clear. Even just watching it happen on stage, I felt that I had somehow been tainted by the vileness of it all as well. This is a play focused on an elephant, but its real targets are the despicable greed and misplaced pride of human beings that makes this sort of thing happen in the first place. 

Mlima’s Tale is a Griffin Theatre production now playing at Raven Theater, 6157 N. Clark St, Chicago, IL, until Mar 21. The show runs approximately 90 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.

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