By Lynn Venhaus
A majestic and powerful African elephant, brutally killed for his ivory tusks, is an unforgettable central character – both in life and death — in the haunting fable, “Mlima’s Tale.”
Actor Kambi Gathesha is a towering figure, using his elegance and physicality to appear as the beautiful creature on the African savannas in a Kenyan game preserve. His hypnotic spirit remains in the afterlife.
A commanding, expressive presence for 85 minutes on a sparse stage at the Berges Theatre at COCA in University City, Gathesha guides us on his bounty’s path. It’s a dark and disturbing journey through the sinister world of the international, and illegal, ivory trade.
This is The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ first live presentation since the pandemic shut down its stages in March 2020 and was initially set for last year.
The regional premiere of Lynn Nottage’s engrossing work explores what price commerce and where the line is drawn, if it is at all.
Nottage, the celebrated playwright who has won two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, for “Sweat” in 2017, set in a factory workers’ hangout in a company town in rustbelt Pennsylvania, and “Ruined,” from 2009, which is about sex slavery during a civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is to date the only woman to win twice.
Nottage’s dramatic storytelling unfolds poetically with Mlima, symbolizing the animal’s grandeur and fear, and uses her meticulous research to present African history, culture and tradition.
Then, she focuses on the unsavory poachers and smugglers, pointing fingers at those who profit from taking what isn’t theirs – including a complicated grid of government officials and black-market operatives. Nottage explains how and why it’s a big-money cutthroat business with such high stakes.
Imagine mother Africa. Its beauty. The regal wildlife. But greed and conspicuous consumption are driving the global economy, and opportunists are ready to pounce.
Special recognition must go to choreographer Kirven Douthit-Boyd, who created the graceful movements, and through Gathesha’s motion, depicts the horrific killing, by bow and poison arrow.
A small cast of four fills the space, with Ezioma Asonye, Will Mann and Joe Ngo each assuming 28 different characters, with Helen Huang’s costume design crucial to distinguishing who’s who in quick outfit changes. Their roles include Somali poachers, a police chief, a park warden, bureaucrat, Chinese businessman, ship captain and ivory carver – all in various shades of gray (morality-wise) – as we travel from Kenya to Beijing.
Their authenticity is further illustrated by the lyrical work of dialect coaches Barbara Rubin and Julie Foh, for the characters represent various countries.
Much is left to the imagination in this minimalistic production, but director Shariffa Ali has conjured up such potent, vivid imagery that connects it simply and beautifully. You feel Mlima’s magnificence (and just a note, “Mlima” means “mountain” in Swahili).
You-Shin Chen’s scenic design and Jasmine Lesane’s lighting design add to the impressionistic feel while the sound design and music score by Avi Amon enhanced the atmosphere.
By humanizing Mlima’s plight, Nottage draws much needed attention to the exploitation of animals who should be protected, but people look the other way because they are driven by money, not conscience.
With heart-wrenching scenes and heartless people, “Mlima’s Tale” provoked both anger and tears.
“Mlima’s Tale” is presented May 28 through July 11 at the Berges Theatre at COCA, 6880 Washington Avenue in University City. For more information, visit www.repstl.org.
For audience and performer safety, theatre capacity will be kept at 25 percent, in line with the St. Louis County Department of Health’s COVID-19 guidelines. In addition, The Rep is adhering to its comprehensive plan to keep actors, production staff and patrons safe during the return to live theatre. ‘Mlima’s Tale’ is The Rep’s only performance from the 2020-2021 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.