Spirit Animal: Theatre Nova’s “Mlima’s Tale" explores the costs of human greed


Mlima's Tale

Mike Sandusky plays the spirit of the titular elephant in Theatre Nova’s production of Mlima’s Tale. Photo by Sean Carter.

At the start of Theatre Nova’s production of Lynn Nottage’s Mlima’s Tale, the four-person cast enters in a line, stomping and breathing deeply in unison, mimicking the movements of an elephant.

For that’s what Mlima is.

The old Kenyan “big tusker,” named after the Swahili word for “mountain,” lumbers onto the stage, at which point actor Mike Sandusky (who stands in for Mlima’s tusks, and spirit, through the rest of the play) speaks: of listening to the winds, and the love he feels for his mate, his family.

But it’s not long before Mlima—despite living within a preserve in Kenya—is felled by a poacher’s poison arrow. The animal’s enormous tusks simply garner too much money in the underground ivory trade to be resisted. 

Yet getting that money, because poaching is illegal, is a fraught process, so Mlima’s physical death is followed by a fairly predictable chain of interactions between corrupt authorities, smugglers, ship captains, shady art-world dealers and creators, and rich collectors who can’t be bothered with origin stories of “how the ivory gets made,” so to speak.

Previous critics have noted that a point of inspiration for Mlima’s Tale, which premiered in New York in 2018, is Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde, which chronicles a linked series of sexual encounters across class boundaries. In Nottage’s piece, we follow the tusks, personified by the ever-looming Sandusky, as they change hands and enrich each person who briefly possesses them.

Mlima's Tale

David Moy, Mike Sandusky, Marie Muhammad, and Darius Franklin star in Theatre Nova’s production of Mlima’s Tale. Photo by Sean Carter.

There’s not much in the way of surprise in the 70-minute play, but if nothing else, it hits home the point, writ large, that humanity’s priorities are profoundly out of whack. If the death of this endangered, magnificent animal merely results in yet another overlooked tchotchke for the wealthy and we know that the chain of corruption will never stop despite well-intentioned laws, then what hope can there be for humanity? Not much.

And Nottage is not one to let audiences off the hook by way of false optimism. So although Mlima’s Tale won’t likely electrify you, it does quietly, hauntingly launch you down the rabbit hole of thinking deeply about the earthly costs of humanity’s greed.

Theatre Nova’s visually spare production, directed by Lynch Travis, features three actors (David Moy, Darius Franklin, Marie Muhammad) playing multiple roles while Sandusky looks on, occasionally painting white stripes on his face, and sometimes marking those who debase themselves within a transaction.

Micha Mallett’s costume design, along with Jeff Alder’s lighting, helps to visually distinguish the actors’ and the settings’ many shifts, as does sound designer Kennikki Jones-Jones, who aurally places us in various locales across Kenya, Vietnam, and China. Meanwhile, set designer Paul Taylor keeps things simple, letting the cast and the audience fill in the blanks with their imagination.

This brings us back to Mlima’s arresting opening moment when it feels like this gigantic, noble creature has joined us in Theatre Nova’s space. 

It reminded me of how, when we’re young children, we’re asked to pretend we’re animals. We make trunks of our arms and hunch over as if we walk on all fours, then rear back and trumpet air through closed lips. 

Perhaps Mlima gets some of its punch by bringing us all back to that innocent moment of animal connection, followed by a varied show of precisely how far we’ve all fallen away, in the interim, from the best, most humane versions of ourselves.

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

Theatre Nova’s production of "Mlima’s Tale" runs through September 24. Visit theatrenova.org for tickets and showtimes.