Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage tackles the world of poaching in her latest work, Mlima’s Tale. Nottage’s work explores every setting from many perspectives and emotional starting points. Mlima’s Tale is another of those thought-provoking pieces that allows you ample time to see the reality. Second Thought Theatre fearless approach to picking it’s productions makes the 2020 season opener even more profound. To kick off their 16th season, sadly the last year under the Artistic Direction of Alex Organ, STT transforms its black box house into the wilderness of Kenya, the late night ports of Vietnam and the wealthy mansions of Beijing. Director Tiana Kaye Blair, who we had a lovely chat with before to opening night, brings her acting chops and a refreshing take with her STT directing debut. The play’s material and unique story are wonderfully orchestrated by Blair and her team.
Our cast is lead by STT newbies Kristen D’Sha, Christopher Lew, and McClendon “Mickey” Giles. Sam Henderson is the sole cast member who has applied his skills at STT. Mickey Giles plays our slain Mlima with a passion and stoic nature that leads to a surprising emotional ending to his journey. Giles utilizes movement more than dialogue to highlight the freedom of a figure like Mlima. D’Sha, Lew and Henderson tackle many characters along the horrific odyssey of Mlima. As the ancient elephant becomes merely the ivory poached figure-head for a wealthy buyer the more painful the play becomes. The unusual element that helps make this play so enjoyable is the way Nottage uses humor to humanize the figures who carry out such a dastardly deed of smuggling. Henderson seems especially connected to his character’s changes and really dominates every introduction. Christopher Lew and D’Sha work well with their vernacular and accent work throughout the play. Lew by the end of the play seems to really relish the eccentric figures he embodies.
The other fun element of the production is the rather simple looking back drop. The one piece of intrigue is the beautifully constructed Diamond moon box. The backlight vinyl print frame hides an elaborate LED strip lighting base inside the box that allows for multiple color variations to the dynamic oval moon (Props to Drew Wall on this behind the scenes explanation!). With every show STT seems to hold a lovely secret structure or visual accent that connects with the material so well. In this case the bright moon box is the light that shines upon these terrible poaching deeds. Along with the ghost of Mlima trailing our many smuggler figures that moon box is also ever-present with Giles stoic stances.
Nottage’s works always showcases people in extraordinary events. The choices made by her characters highlight the vast differences in our global culture and in particular in this globe-trotting production. Her stance on justice is easily taken by the work, but the emotional impact always seems to smack us audience members so unexpectedly. For instance, Mlima’s journey hits a tremendously terrible demise that only is fully captured when he is “remade” by one of the characters. Henderson plays this one character as a really intelligent figure that knows the full realm of Mlima the ancient elephant. And thus his slow manipulation of Mlima changes Nottage’s work from a sad drama to a haunting horror before our eyes. We are left hearing the screams of agony of all the lost creatures taken by poachers and the final mounting of Mlima is such a masterful reveal in this small black box space. I literally gasped when the last sequence unfolded before me. I was not shocked by the inevitable action but by the emotional pull the play put forth.
Bravo to all the STT newcomers who fearlessly dived in with this production. 2020 should open with this story.
Find more info – MLIMA’S TALE.
In case you want to listen to my interview with talented Director Tiana Kaye Blair –
The diamond moon box –