Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Mlima's Tale
Griffin Theatre Company
Review by Ruth Smerling|Season Schedule

Also see Richard's review of Plano

(clockwise from center) David Goodloe, Chris Pow,
Lewon Johns, Ben Chang, Michael Turrentine
and Sarah Lo

Photo by Michael Brosilow
Elephants are mysterious, majestic creatures. I'm delighted to find that I share that feeling with Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage. I'm not the only one who has ever had feelings for the elephant. Many, many years ago my cousin took me to Coney Island in Brooklyn. It's a wonderful place on the Boardwalk, right on the water. There are freak shows, rides, and all kinds of amusements. Amid all the eye-catching distractions, we walked past an elephant being touched and patted and gawked at by countless spectators. I looked in the giant, but sweet creature's eyes and was overcome by how much I believed that poor creature was humiliated, maybe even painfully shy. I later learned that I was on track. Elephants are very sensitive creatures and able to communicate much in the way dolphins can. They are family oriented and when one of them dies, they all get together and mourn for a significant period of time. In her most imaginative work, Mlima's Tale, Lynn Nottage (Ruined, Sweat, and By the Way, Meet Vera Stark) takes up the plight of an innocent elephant as she explores the dirty greed and corruption of the international ivory trade.

Mlima's Tale was sparked by "The Ivory Highway," an article written by journalist Damon Tabor, who went to Africa and actually got a foothold into the lucrative world of ivory smuggling. The play was originally developed and produced in 2018 to critical acclaim by the Public Theater in New York City, and is now making its Midwest premiere through Griffin Theatre Company.

The story begins in Africa with Mlima (David Goodloe), a magnificent elephant marveling at the world around him. His mood soon shifts to intense fear when he senses danger (an elephant has a sense of smell many times more acute than a dog). His fears are confirmed when he's approached by two poachers (Lewon Johns, Michael Turrentine) who sneak up behind him to kill him for his perfectly symmetrical ivory tusks. Johns and Turrentine are extremely compelling as the dutiful poachers who have learned their trade and craft from a long chain of fathers before them. They respect the beast as much as they wish to profit from him. Eventually, Mlima is killed but does not die. Instead, he haunts everyone in the story and marks each of them with a dab of white paint to the face, like a tattoo, as if to say, "you take my tusks you're marked for life."

Once the tusks are carefully pried from the elephant's body, Mlima follows the poachers as they meet with a host of corrupt officials. The cast reshapes from crooked police to paranoid customs officials, to even sleazier politicians. There is warning from a renowned conservationist that elephants will become completely extinct if poachers are not stopped quickly. Some effort is made to stop but the poachers are as cautious and artful as the elephants and there is little other industry in the poor African countries that will net in as much income. The ivory does not stay in Africa. It moves frequently to China first. Ben Chang is chilling as the corrupt police officer and internationally connected elected official who fuels the sale of the precious substance that is turned into trinkets and winds up on the shelves of affluent Chinese homes. Colin McShane, Christopher Thomas Pow, and Sarah Lo return quickly in different costumes to play multiple roles.

David Goodloe as Mlima makes a good case for an elephant's ability to communicate. True, this story is based on a journalist's findings, yet the big question is who leaked it to him? I don't know about you, but I hear a low roar when I think about it.

Mlima's Tale runs through March 21, 2020, at the Raven Theatre's Schwartz Stage, 6157 N. Clark Street, Chicago IL. Regular tickets are $38 and for seniors and veterans $33. Subscriptions are available. For tickets and information, please visit or call 773-338-2177.