Lynn Nottage’s brave and mournful new play, “Mlima’s Tale”, is a potent work currently serving as the fourth production of the Westport Playhouse’s 2019 season. The Pulitzer Prize winning Nottage, one of the best contemporary playwrights now working in American theatre, is the author of such memorable dramas as “Intimate Apparel”, “Ruined” and “Sweat”. With “Mlima’s Tale”, this brilliant writer continues her string of important, conversational plays of raw power.
The story of “Mlima’s Tale” is not an easy one to hear as it chronicles the illicit ivory trade that is still ongoing in Kenya and throughout the world. The slaughter of the magnificent African elephants is a timely and horrific topic and Nottage’s approach doesn’t shy from the ugly. Early on we see actual photographs of an elephant, the “Mlima” of the title, after being hunted and butchered for his ivory. It’s hard to look at and it’s mercifully brief, but it is also essential to Nottage’s message. Engrossing and endlessly theatrical, the play gets a big plus from the casting of African American actor/dancer Jermaine Rowe who portrays Mlima. The actor employs wonderful physicality as he narrates a tale that brings tremendous empathy and, yes, humanity to his animal character.
Nottage cleverly structures the play as an assembly line of corruption detailing the process from beginning to end. We meet a number of people who have to sign-off on this illegal activity that eventually ends up as artwork for the wealthy. With only a cast of four (including Rowe) changing costumes, wigs and sexes, the various officials, hunters, traffickers and collectors are played by Jennean Farmer, Adit Dileep and Carl Hendrick Louis. Mark Lamos’ direction is consistently graceful, but it is clear that not all of his actors are up to the challenge of playing multiple roles. The mediocre acting in some of the roles slightly mars an otherwise superior production.
The stark and effective scenic design by Claire DeLiso is highlighted by a magnificent array of projections by Yana Birykova. Cheers also to composer Michael Keck for his haunting score and the moody lighting design by Isabella Byrd. Choreographer Jeffrey Page’s work with Mr. Rowe speaks for itself and is breathlessly eloquent. So is Ms. Nottage’s play which, in 80 concise and intense minutes, is the definition of a conversation starter. It demands to be seen.
“Mlima’s Tale” continues at the Westport Playhouse, 25 Powers Court in Westport through October 19. For ticket reservations or further information call: 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor and resident critic of WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.