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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
As Sweat explored the carefully researched world of American factory workers facing an end of the well-paid jobs that had supported their families for several generations, so Mlima's Tale gives us an equally well researched close-up look at the covert international ivory market that thrives despite the widespread ban on Ivory trading. Ms. Nottage has invented a real elephant as her play's title character and used his killing and the machinations involved in exporting his giant tusks to propel her fast-paced 80-minute one-act play.
When I looked at the press materials and saw that the elephant at the center of this tale would be played by Sahr Ngaujah I was both apprehensive and intrigued — the former because I tend not to like human actors inhabiting animal characters, but intrigued because I've found anything that Lynn Nottage is writes worth seeing and because I remember Ngaujah vivid performances in Felah as well as a revival of Master Harold and the Boys. Thus with Nottage writing the story and Ngaujah to portray her elephant, I headed to the Public's Martinson Theater with high hopes.
Fortunately, my hopes were fully justified. Mlima's Tale is a terrific play. Ngaujah gives a mesmerizing performance as do the three other actors who nimbly play the many characters involved in the story that begins with two Kenyan poachers killing one of their country's last great natural treasures and continues to take us through the intricate web through which Mlima's stolen tusks must pass before getting into the hands of the highest bidder. The multiple characters Kevin Mambo, Jojo Gonzalez and Ito Aghayere portray, the program understandably lists them only as Player 1, 2 and 3.
The illegal journey of Mlma's giant tusks to their final destination adds a symbolic political spin to the riveting world spanning tale Ms. Nottage has concocted. That symbolism brings Mlma's tragedy and, greed driven destructive behavior generally, closer to our own country, especially since the elephant is the symbol of the current ruling party with its governance mantra of follow the money no matter what the cost to the country at large.
With Jo Bonney at the helm, Milma's Tale is given a visually and aurally powerful production. Nottage's apt titles are projected before each scene, involving another pair willing to put on blinders when it comes to observing the rules. As the actors morph from one greed-is-good character to another, the ghost of Mlima always hovers over them, and at scene's end smearing them with a daub of the white paint that marks him.
While Sahr Ngaujah is silent throughout, except for his moving opening and closing monologue his silent presence brilliantly exemplifies that you don't need words to convey alarm, pain and despair. The production is handsomely supported by the designers, Lap Chi Chu's evocative lighting. A big bravo is also due to Justin Hicks, who performs his original and true to the sounds of the African Savannah.
Here's hoping this world premiere will enjoy a healthy theatrical after life. My advice to New York theater goers: Don't miss it during its all too brief run on Lafayette Street.
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Mlima's Tale by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Jo Bonney
Cast: Ito Aghayere (Player 3), Jojo Gonzalez (Player 2), Kevin Mambo (Player 1), and Sahr Ngaujah (Mlima)br> Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez
Costume design by Jennifer Moeller
Lighting design by Lap Chi Chus
Sound design by Darron L West
Music Director, composer, musician: Justin Hicks
Hair & Makeup by Cookie Jordan
Fight direction by Thomas Schall Stage Manager: Linda Marvel
Running Time: 80 minutes,no Intermission
Public Theater's Martinson Hall, 420 Lafayette Street
From 3/27/18; opening 4/15/18; closing 5/20/18.
Tuesday through Friday at 8:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 4/14/18 press preview
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