Lynn Nottage on Mlima’s Tale

Playwright Lynn Nottage is seemingly everywhere.  Her wide appeal and astonishing tonal range stretch from the gut-wrenching Ruined to the broad humor of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.  Two of her plays — Clyde’s and Sweat — are among the ten most produced of this year’s season.  The operatic version of her drama, Intimate Apparel, for which she wrote the libretto, is currently on PBS as part of their Great Performances series.  And she wrote the book for the Michael Jackson jukebox musical, MJ, now playing on Broadway. Her long reach is made possible in part by a form of self-care.  She gives herself a mental break from covering thornier issues by simultaneously writing a comedy.  

Last Thursday in an evening co-presented by the Center for Fiction in Brooklyn and Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner sat down for her first conversation with Damon Tabor.  The investigative journalist wrote an article, “The Ivory Highway,” that inspired her play Mlima’s Tale.  He had tracked the intertwined entities responsible for the horrendous international ivory trade.  Offenders include poachers, smugglers and all-too-knowing buyers.  Moved by what she read in his piece, Nottage buried herself in research. It revealed a genuine possibility of a world without elephants and she felt the need to sound an alarm.  She educated herself about the communication style of elephants, especially their deeply social nature.  Eventually she developed a story from the viewpoint of a rare big-tusker, beginning with his murder and following the trail through all of those who were complicit in his death.  She named him Mlima, Swahili for mountain.

The script is structured as a series of one-on-one conversations illustrating the chain as Mlima’s tusks move from one possessor to the next.  Always one for putting a face on an issue, Nottage had the lead character of Mlima portrayed by a human actor.  This enabled her to let him more easily communicate to the audience and bring his emotions fully into the room.  Rather than using the traditional approach of hiring the production crew after the cast had begun their work, Nottage brought the entire team together from day one, resulting in a more cohesive artistic statement.  Oscar winning director, Kathryn Bigelow, brought her genuine outrage and big picture thinking to the initial run-throughs.  The impactful concept of having Mlima physically leave his mark on all the perpetrators by smearing them in white came from costume designer Jennifer Moeller. 

Mlima’s Tale, was nominated by the Outer Critics Circle in several categories when New York’s Public Theater presented the world premiere in 2018 under the direction of Jo Bonney.  The book can be purchased here: Performances are currently playing at 1st Stage in Tysons, Virginia and due to open soon at the Arsht Center in Miami, Florida.  Productions are also being prepared internationally, though significantly not in China where the ivory trade still flourishes.

Image: Ito Aghayere, Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo in the 2018 World Premiere of Mlima’s Tale.  © Joan Marcus.


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