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An elephant’s ghost story shines light on harrowing slaughter, ivory trade in ‘Mlima’s Tale’

Lynn Nottage’s latest drama is an unflinching tale of pain and suffering told from a most unique perspective.

David Goodloe (front) with Lewon Johns (back, from left) and Michael Turrentine in Griffin Theatre Company’s Midwest premiere of “Mlima’s Tale.”
David Goodloe (front) with Lewon Johns (back, from left) and Michael Turrentine in Griffin Theatre Company’s Midwest premiere of “Mlima’s Tale.”
Michael Brosilow

If you’re lucky enough to see elephants in the wild, the first thing you notice is how human they seem (or how elephant-like humans can seem). They travel in families — bulls and their mates snuffling, stomping and sometimes bellowing to keep their rambunctious, inquisitive youngsters close. They have intricate social structures, raise alarms when danger lurks and go to extremes to protect their own.

But as Griffin Theatre’s evocative staging of Lynn Nottage’s “Mlima’s Tale” puts in stark relief, the world’s largest land animal doesn’t have a chance when targeted by poachers eager to cash in on the lucrative black market ivory trade.

Conservationist reports calculate that 30 percent of Africa’s elephant population died between 2007 and 2014, lost to poachers who can command hefty sums for ivory tusks. In August, 2017, one of the world’s most outspoken anti-poaching activists, Wayne Lotter, was assassinated. Headlines flared for a day and mostly disappeared.

That’s the context for “Mlima’s Tale,” where the title character is the bruised but undaunted spirit of a mighty bull elephant taken down by poachers and sold for parts. Director Jerrell L. Henderson merges elements of a ghost story with an astute command of the real-life, nightmarish horrors the poaching industry has made an integral part of life (and death) for wild elephants — even those who, like Mlima, are supposedly safe in sanctuary reserves.

As Mlima, David Goodloe carries the production, making the grand creature come alive through Nottage’s perfectly sculpted words and movement director Jacinda Ratcliffe’s expressive choreography. At lights up, Goodloe shows Mlima at the height of his powers, striding with intent, carefully listening to all that surrounds him. The scene is idyllic: Wild bird calls, rustling grasses and the magisterial bellows of Mlima himself evoke the vast grasslands where wild elephants live — and die. Mlima is killed in the first scene, shot by bow and arrow.

Lewon Johns (from left), David Goodloe and Michael Turrentine star in Griffin Theatre Company’s Midwest premiere of “Mlima’s Tale.”
Lewon Johns (from left), David Goodloe and Michael Turrentine star in Griffin Theatre Company’s Midwest premiere of “Mlima’s Tale.”
Michael Brosilow

Mlima’s body and spirit then embark through a “La Ronde”-like chain of poachers, dealers, middlemen, artists and collectors. At every link, Mlima’s traffickers find ways to legally and morally justify their actions. If nothing else, their paper work is in order. Mlima will be reduced to “trinkets” and art collectibles, all meticulously documented to “prove” that the elephant wasn’t poached. Mlima’s spirit watches, with disbelief, rage and sorrow passing like waves through him.

As Mlima’s body moves up the chain, he’s unceremoniously hidden under tarps, as if no one involved can bear to see what they’ve taken from the world. Maybe the ivory merchants won’t see what they’ve done, but Nottage (aided by often shockingly graphic work by violence and intimacy designer Lewon Johns, who is also among the show’s cast) makes certain the audience won’t be afforded the comfort of willful blindness. Throughout, each time Mlima — or part of him — changes hands, the buyer is marked with smears of chalky white. By the close, everyone on stage is covered in ghostly stripes.

Henderson’s supporting cast is uneven but adequate. Michael Turrentine is outstanding as a young poacher who recognizes the importance and the dignity of his prey, and whose own economic survival is tragically, inextricably linked to the illicit trade of ivory. Once Mlima becomes the property of a high-end master-sculptor, the ensemble’s delivery flattens out, but the drama holds together nonetheless, with Henderson’s design team accomplishing a good deal on a blackbox budget. Joy Ahn’s minimalist set and Jared Gooding’s light design capture the sweep of the savannah; the rooms where once-wild creatures are sold for parts are small and ugly by comparison.

Nottage is the only woman on the planet to win two Pulitzers for drama: In 2009 for “Ruined” and in 2017 for “Sweat.” The former followed the lives of Congolese women working as sex workers in a landscape where rape is a constant threat; the latter explored the relationship between a parole officer and two ex-convicts. She uses similarly unflinching language with “Mlima.”

A world without wild elephants seems almost incomprehensible. Figures vary and elephant censuses are challenging, but there are reportedly somewhere between 350,000 and 500,000 in the wild. Nottage shows the fate of one, and if poaching continues apace, countless others.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.