Of Elephants And Men — The Rep’s ‘Mlima’s Tale’ Examines The Cost Of Poaching
When the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis staged the first preview of “Mlina’ Tale” last week, it had been 14 months since the theater company last performed in front of a live, indoor audience. It is returning to the stage with a powerful story by Lynn Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner.
Shariffa Ali directs the play, which examines illegal ivory trade through the eyes of an elephant that has been killed for its tusks. Kambi Gathesha portrays the elephant and its spirit, which endures beyond its physical death to observe how its tusks make their way through the international black market.
Ali is a Kenyan native who was raised in South Africa. She has worked as an artist and scholar in the U.S. since 2013, and is a faculty member at Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts. She’s also been a fellow at the Sundance Institute, where she presented an Afrofuturist virtual reality project.
“The way this play works is like a domino effect, where one person’s actions impact another and another and another. And I think the beauty of that is it shows us how we’re all connected and how our actions impact each other,” Ali said.
Ezioma Asonye, Will Mann and Joe Ngo split more than a dozen supporting parts, as the quick-moving story moves from Kenya to east Asia to show the chain of events that follow Mlima’s violent death.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with Ali about how she brought the intense story to life.
Jeremy D. Goodwin: Why did you want to jump back into in-person theater-making with this piece?
Shariffa Ali: It is an intense story and it is a necessary story to tell because, yes, “Mlima’s Tale” is about the ivory trade. Yes, it is about a haunting by the spirit of elephants. And beyond that it is a story about our human greed, our love of excess, our exotification of the other.
Because we’re human beings telling this story, it very clearly points us toward our treatment of each other, as humans.
And so, while the play is about elephants, coming back into the rehearsal room after a year without theater —after Ahmaud Arbery, after George Floyd, after Breonna Taylor and countless others — the play takes on a deeper significance.
Jeremy D. Goodwin: I think the key to the whole thing is the audience buying into the personification of the spirit of the elephant. We’re seeing an actor portray the afterlife spirit of an elephant that has been killed for its tusks. Could you talk a little bit about the theatricality of that, and just making it work onstage?
Ali: We are using dance and movement. Kivrin Douthit-Boyd, our incredible movement director, has done an amazing job helping us envision a transformation of the physical human into an elephant and then into a spirit of an elephant and finally, the elephant’s tusks, that get traded and carved.
We not only have an actor who personifies an elephant, we have Kambi Gathesha, who is an exquisite New York-based performer. Kambi has really interesting life experience as someone who was born and raised in Kenya, the land where Mlima comes from. Kambi brings this rich, deeply moving spirituality and physicality to the role.
He uses movement to tell this story, as well as this beautiful white paint which is used to evoke a sense of blood. As every exchange occurs, Kambi is tasked with smearing his blood on the guilty parties that have had a hand in the trade of his ivory and thus his soul.
Goodwin: The play is written to be played by four actors, who play — how many characters, do you know offhand?
Ali: Oh goodness. Over 16, perhaps?
Goodwin: And the stage directions specify that there should be a ‘breathless’ feel to the action, and to not have a blackout until the very end of the piece. How is it going in terms of making that work? It sounds like it could get chaotic.
Ali: We symbolize the change of one character to another with the simple shifting of one item of clothing. Props are minimal, like, what is absolutely essential? And of course because the performers are really gifted singers and movers as well, they embody a great deal of what it means to transition from place to place, country to country. There is something significant and powerful about what the body can do when given an opportunity to move through story.
Goodwin: You are a native of Kenya, where a big chunk of this play takes place. You've talked in the past about experiences as a child there, hearing stories from elders. Did that play into the fact you’re a professional storyteller now?
Ali: Wow. You know, I never made the connection. But I suppose that learning and hearing from the elders in my community certainly planted a seed of what storytelling could be. I often think about time spent at the fire or under the tree with my grandparents or my aunts and uncles as some of the most significant memories that I have.
And yes, yes, I would say that I’m a theater-maker, a filmmaker, a storyteller now because I was an attentive listener to their stories.
Goodwin: A theme in this play is the awareness of ancestors, and the idea that they’re watching us.
Ali: I think that this past year has been wracked with so much struggle and we’ve lost so many people. And as a society, we are in a period of collective grieving and collective mourning.
And when I think about ancestors — especially ancestors that may have gone too soon, that were taken, and people that have passed on, and the significance of this play that is literally a haunting by an ancestral elephant — I can’t help but get emotional.
Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin