Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Mlima's Tale, a ninety-minute one act, is perfectly suited for Ten Thousand Things Theater Company, presenting the play at the Open Book for Literary Arts as well as its customary free performances at community-based locations (which are sold out). With their standard practice of performing in unadorned spaces with minimalist set pieces and props and easily donned and doffed costumes and having a handful of actors each take on a variety of roles, one might think the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright had the company in mind when she wrote the play, which premiered at New York's Off-Broadway Public Theater in spring of 2018.
The play is written for four actors, though Ten Thousand Things has expanded the cast to five. One actor, in this case Bose, plays Mlima throughout. The elephant is a majestic creature sacrificed to the illegal international ivory market. We see Mlima pursued by poachers in the savannah of Kenya, and his torturous but dignified death. This is followed by a series of scenes between wildlife managers, bureaucrats, traders, politicians, foreign diplomats, cargo ship captains, merchants, artisans and upscale art collectors, twenty-one identified characters in all, played by the other four cast members.
Most scenes focus on two characters: one who is at the moment in possession of Mlima's extraordinary ivory tusks, and one to whom the first wants to pass them on for a sizable profit. Most of them know that they are engaged in something wrong, but find ways to overlook the truth or to rationalize, or simply give in to greed with no remorse. However, Mlima's spirit remains present throughout. Bose, who is an elegant dancer and choreographer as well as an actor, is always near, expressing through his body (with evocative choreography and movement devised by Darrius Strong) Mlima's sorrow and bewilderment at the supposedly superior species who acts so savagely.
Each of the other five actors do remarkably strong work, becoming someone new every five minutes or so, aided by Joe Burch III's inventive costumes that allow for quick changes. Each scene is written by Nottage with crisp dialog that ably reflects the worldview of those speaking, whether a hunter living in the bush and desperate to provide food for the family, an American merchant ship captain who has transported contraband goods before but now fears the risks are too great, a master ivory carver who must have his conscience assuaged before he will accept a commission to practice his art on Mlima's magnificent tusks, or one of the newly rich Chinese in need of a large piece of decor to fill the space in their large Beijing penthouse. All of the actors are wonderful, gracefully sliding in and out of characters, but extra snaps go to Joy Dolo, who adds levity to the otherwise very serious piece with impromptu interactions with audience members.
The director, Ansa Akyea, honors the art of storytelling, using movement and blocking to support the actors in creating a clear and compelling narrative of the disparate parts. Small details make a vast difference, too, such as the scene at an embassy party where Will Sturdivant, as an agent needing to move the ivory out of Africa to China where it can fetch the highest price, speaks in riddles to Katie Bradley, as a new Chinese diplomat assigned to Kenya. Their obvious efforts to couch what they really want to say in the guise of polite party banter is fascinating–and the crowning touch is Clay Man Soo, as a cater waiter, who walks silently back and forth with a serving tray, prompting the two to lower their voices or to stop speaking altogether each time he passes. A perfectly written and staged scene, but all of the scenes in Mlima are executed with the same degree of care.
Sound is an important element of Mlima, with the trumpeting of elephants, the bellow of ships' horns, the crash of waves, and the traffic of a city transforming the open stage space (with the most minimal of set design from Joel Sass) into different environments. Added to this is an ongoing musical underscoring using the sounds of Africa, including beautifully melodic mbira playing, by music director Dameun Strange. It should also be noted that, with characters from rural and urbanized Kenya as well other nationalities, great attention is paid to the use of appropriate accents for different characters, as reflected by the fact that the production gives credit to three different dialect consultants.
Mlima's Tale is a beautiful play that delivers a vital message about the ethics of turning natural treasures into commodities, the imperative need to preserve the creatures with whom we share this planet, and the ways in which human beings fall short in being stewards of our earth. I truly cannot imagine a theater anywhere giving a more fully realized production of the play than what Ten Thousand Things has given to us. Tickets for remaining performances are scarce but snatch one if you can.
Mlima's Tale runs through March 12, 2023, with all remaining performances at The Open Book Center for Literary Arts, 1011 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis MN. "Name your price" for all tickets, suggested price $35.00. For tickets and information, please call 612-203-9502 or visit www.tenthousandthings.org.
Playwright: Lynn Nottage; Director: Ansa Akyea; Music Director: Dameun Strange; Choreography and Movement: Darrius Strong; Set Design: Joel Sass; Costume Design: Joe Burch III; Props Design: Nick Golfis; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Dialect Consultants: Patrick Chew, Anh-Thu Pham and Wariboko Sementari; Stage Manager: Mathew Meeks; Assistant Director: Ashe Jaafaru; Production Manager: Ryan Volna-Rich.
Cast: Brian Bose (Mlima), Katie Bradley (Player 2, Fu Guoxi, Jim Baxter, voices, Thuy Fan, Li Jun), Joy Dolo (Player 3, Githinji, Andrew Graves, Aziz Muhammed, voices, Customs Official, Angie, Alice Ying), Clay Man Soo (Player 1, Geedi, reporter, waiter, voices, Hua Huynh, Master Yee, Mr. Cheung, Hong Feng), Will Sturdivant (Player 4, Rahman, Wamwara, Patience, Hassan Abdulla, Captain Ramaaker, voices).