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Betrayal, chicanery, deceit, evasion — if human beings can do it to one another in a business deal, then you will probably find it somewhere in the text of Lynn Nottage’s new play, Mlima’s Tale (Public Theater), nestling among the polite euphemisms in which the characters largely converse. On the verbal surface, the propensity of humans to cheat other humans is the principal topic of Nottage’s script; giving way to that propensity is its principal dramatic action. But Nottage has proved through many previous plays that her gift as a dramatic strategist is one major key to her writing skills, and, in fact, Mlima’s Tale isn’t about these matters at all, except in a decidedly secondary way. They concern Nottage so little that, once one of her human characters has been betrayed, cheated, deceived, evaded, or whatever, she never bothers to go back and show you that character’s reaction. The betrayal simply rolls along to its next phase, leaving you to imagine the outrage it’s left behind. Just a portrait of human beings doing what they do, like the beasts that they are.
The more interesting subject, for Nottage, is the largely silent animal whose presence dominates this play in which the humans do the bulk of the talking. For reasons which the script makes very clear, he frequently goes unmentioned by them. For the subject of Mlima’s Tale is, quite literally, the elephant in the room. Mlima, embodied onstage with heart-rending roars and writhings by the actor Sahr Ngaujah, is an old and wily Kenyan bull elephant, a prize tusker, brought down by poachers in a game preserve. The action, scene by scene, narrates what happens to his magnificent ivory tusks as they pass from hand to criminal hand, ballooning in value as they cross over continents, leaving a trail of defrauded humans behind them.
They don’t leave Mlima behind. His spirit is in the tusks; where they are, he is. “If you not give elephant proper burial, he’ll haunt you forever,” warns one of the poachers as Mlima dies, and Nottage makes this her unspoken dramatic premise. The irony cuts both ways: The human beings, gloating over the ivory or the profit they make on it, barely seem to notice Mlima’s presence; the pain of the haunting falls on the poor tormented ghost, for whom every stage in the odyssey of the tusks is another body blow — treated literally as such in Jo Bonney’s quiet, precise production. Three actors — Ito Aghayere, Jojo Gonzalez, and Kevin Mambo — play all the human roles, sliding with ease among a string of ethnic and gender identities, as readily as the self-serving individuals they portray slide from indignation to submission, or from blackmailing to cajoling.
A running irony — too painful to be called a running gag — is that Nottage makes every scene contain praise of the magnificent beast from whose gratuitous slaughter the characters are profiting. For the Africans, Mlima is a beloved popular figure, an icon of the continent’s history, a symbol of a time when elephants roamed freely and the giant tuskers could live to a ripe old age. For the Asians who receive and process his smuggled tusks, he is a touchstone of natural beauty and an artistic opportunity, a reminder of the Earth’s splendor. Only the Americans — there are two, a ship’s captain and his first mate — caught up in the smuggling (one against his will) have nothing to say about Mlima’s grandeur. Which may be a point in their favor, since the fine words of the others largely serve to put a polite face on the wrong they know they are doing. (“Much as I love ivory,” one of them says sanctimoniously, “I abhor the notion of killing for it.”) The human propensity to proffer shiny excuses goes hand-in-hand with the species’ other corruptions.
Bonney’s production enhances the stark and quiet ironies of Nottage’s script with an effective soundscape (by the ever-reliable Darron L. West) that blends with live music (performed onstage by Justin Hicks). Riccardo Hernandez’s evocatively spare settings reap the benefit of evocatively poetic lighting by Lap Chi Chu. But in case the beauty of the event carries you away — as the beauty of the carved ivory tusks enraptures their final purchaser — the stairwell by which you descend from Martinson Hall to the Public’s lobby is lined with grim statistics about ivory smuggling and decreases in the elephant population, putting the agonies you’ve watched Mlima suffer in the larger context: another painful chapter in the wreck our species is busily making of the globe.