‘Mlima’s Tale’ review: Lynn Nottage’s latest a powerful, tragic tale

‘Mlima’s Tale’ runs through May 20 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., publictheater.org

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage has explored the plight of Pennsylvania steel workers (“Sweat”) and Congolese civil war survivors (“Ruined”). For her latest play, she follows the convoluted journey of a prized and powerful elephant from the plains of Kenya to an ivory shop in Vietnam.

The cynical and cyclical drama “Mlima’s Tale” is receiving its world premiere at the Public Theater under the stylized direction of Jo Bonney (“Father Comes Home from the Wars”).

The imposing Sahr Ngaujah (“Fela!”) portrays Mlima, a 50-year-old savanna elephant described as a “big tusker,” “a fighter” and “the mountain.” At first, Mlima is seen keeping watch during the night, sharing his meditations and observations through monologue.

Mlima is then killed by Somali poachers, which Ngaujah conveys by writhing in pain. Once Mlima’s mammoth tusks are cut off, Ngaujah (now covered in streaks of white paint) stands like a silent, defiant soldier as he becomes a hot commodity in the international ivory market.

The short, two-character scenes that make up the bulk of the play are devised in the chain style of phone tag, with one person becoming involved in the illicit sale of Mlima and then transferring Mlima to someone else and further spreading the pervasive corruption.

Three versatile “players” (Ito Aghayere, Jojo Gonzalez, Kevin Mambo) cross racial and gender boundaries to portray numerous figures, ranging from corrupt bureaucrats and traders to a cargo ship captain and sculptor.

The empty stage is seamlessly and instantly altered for new scenes through an intensive battery of lighting, shifting panels, digital projections and sound (performed by a live musician).

Nottage’s underlying notion (that people from all kinds of backgrounds can easily become engaged in unethical activities) is genuinely unsettling. It turns what is a highly unusual drama about an elephant into a tragedy with universal implications.

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