The terrible price of beauty: Mlima's Tale asks powerful questions at Second Thought Theatre
by Cristee Cook
In Mlima’s Tale by Lynn Nottage, an elder and revered African elephant (Mlima) is poached, and his beautiful tusks stolen. Referred to as a “big tusker,” Mlima’s ivories are rare in both their size and beauty and set to offer a substantial sum of money on the black market. Mlima follows his tusks as they travel from Kenya, to Vietnam, and finally end up in Beijing. With the use of sound, movement, and clay, Mlima haunts each person who plays a part in the theft and sale of his tusks.
The story itself is an interesting one, but it’s what Nottage does with the story that elevates it into a stage worthy tale. Second Thought Theatre’s production, directed by Tiana Kaye Blair (this is her STT directorial debut), presents a poignant and unforgettable story.
Entering the theatre space, it isn’t clear how a stark stage will house this story. Set Designer Jocelyn Grigorie presents what looks like a simple set of platforms, a round projection screen, and a few interesting curtains. These simple items contain a surprising and sophisticated design, and Grigorie’s set takes you along the journey of Mlima with ease. The platform is a boat, an office, and a jungle. The set is the colors of rare gems: the round projection screen holds a brilliant image of a diamond, and the main platform looks like jade. As the play unfolds, we understand why Grigorie chose these colors and images – jade and diamonds (and ivory tusks) are the preciousness we steal from the land in order to serve ourselves.
As Mlima, McClendon “Mickey” Giles is a quiet force behind the action. He’s tender, funny, playful, intense, and vengeful. His dances and movements are filled with raw emotion. Underscored with powerful tribal music which is performed live by Nigel Newton (Musician), the exotic beats and rhythms provide a strong sense of place. Giles’ movements together with Newtons’ instrumentation transport you to the hot air and lush greens of Mlima’s jungle and provide a peek into his inner life.
With only four actors to tell the story, new characters are introduced through costume changes and regional dialects. The ensemble, played by Sam Henderson (Actor 1), Kris D’sha (Actor 2), and Christopher Lew (Actor 3) is also part of the simple machine that makes Blair’s production so successful. Each actor plays many characters: some of them sympathetic to Mlima, some out for greed or power, some clueless to anything other than their own desires for beauty. Where this small cast shines is in the nuance of each role played. In each scene, Nottage offers the character a choice that shapes the trajectory of Mlima’s narrative. Each character offers a nugget of understanding – this is what happens when we are complicit, when we act with greed, when we abuse power, and when we choose silence in the face of wrongdoings. This play offers a powerful and eye-opening lesson, and the cast delivers its most poignant takeaways with strong transformations and detailed intentions.
Reflecting on the images presented in Second Thought’s production, I had the thought that maybe the diamond projected throughout the play was not only a suggestion of the resources we rob from Earth to serve ourselves…but also a nod to how special and rare Mlima is. It’s a takeaway from the play I hadn’t anticipated. In Mlima’s Tale, Nottage highlights an ongoing and entrenched problem in Africa, but she also exposes the love and care that Africa holds for its elephants. Mlima is part of the larger tribal family, and his death by poachers is a grievous blow felt by everyone.
So, why is this a story Second Thought chose to tell in Texas? Why now?...If you take away nothing else from this complex and nuanced journey, I hope it’s the knowledge of what we lose when we choose to act with greed and indifference…that what we gain in terms of wealth and personal adornment often comes at a ghastly price.
Mlima’s Tale by Lynn Nottage is currently showing at Second Thought Theatre. Performances are weekly through March 14, 2020, located at Bryant Hall on the Kalita Humphreys Campus, 3400 Blackburn Street. For tickets and showtimes, visit secondthoughtheatre.com.