What thoughts fly through an elephant's mind before he is slain by an ivory poacher? Does he remember his mother calling him handsome? Does he remember his grandmother teaching him to listen? Does he think to run from his children, hoping to protect them from the humans who hunt him as prey?
According to Profile Theatre's new audio play Mlima's Tale, the answer is all of the above. Written by Lynn Nottage and published in 2018, the play invites us into the soul of Mlima, an elephant who is slaughtered by poachers for his tusks on a Kenyan game preserve. His death opens the play, but it isn't the end of his story—his voice echoes throughout the narrative, as if to taunt his killer.
In a year when most people would probably rather watch cute YouTube videos of baby elephants taking baths, Mlima's Tale might sound like a tough sell. Yet the play is as fascinating as it is heartbreaking. It's a requiem for Mlima, and also a character study of the people impacted by his death—participants in a cycle of conquest, survival and death that director Reginald L. Douglas and his cast have brought to hauntingly vivid life.
Mlima's Tale begins with the title elephant addressing the audience with poetic flair (he calls himself "a shadow warrior"). He's instantly sympathetic, but his murderers aren't as hateful as you would expect. One of the poachers at least respects his prey enough to look him in the eye before he ends his life, and not all those who seek justice for Mlima are necessarily heroes (Andrew Graves, Kenya's director of wildlife, covers his ass by vaguely and callously blaming Mlima's death on government inaction).
The play tracks the journey of Mlima's tusks, which are eventually smuggled off the continent and end up in the hands of an ivory carver known only as Master Yee, who molds them into a work of art worth millions. It's an act that leaves you wondering how you're supposed to feel. Should we be relieved that a part of Mlima lives on through someone's artistic expression? Or should we despair because he has become a commodity, a symbol of the losing battle that endangered species have fought against humanity for generations?
The actors navigate the narrative's ambiguities with grace. As Mlima, Keith Randolph Smith exudes the solidness of granite and the expressiveness of water—his deep, throaty voice and hypnotically slow speech convince you you're listening to the words of a being who is wiser and stranger than a human. Mlima is capable of rage, but Smith's presence radiates both fury and acceptance, personifying the elephant's awareness of his vulnerable place in the universe.
The cast also includes Treasure Lunan, Ithica Tell and Delphon "DJ" Curtis Jr., who play multiple characters (the roles range from a desperate smuggler to a salesman in a Beijing ivory shop). Mlima's Tale must have been a demanding play for the actors—accents must shift as the story crosses borders—but they meet its challenges beautifully, working in concert with Elisheba Ittoop's enveloping sound design and Jenn Mundia's overwhelming score, which is filled with funereal cries.
Mlima's Tale's many triumphs include overcoming the difficulties of conveying wordless action in an audio play. It can be tempting to use an omniscient narrator, but Mlima's Tale tries something different—Smith reads stage directions in character as Mlima (it's safe to say that this is the first play in which an elephant describes a human pouring a glass of Jack Daniels).
While it's hard not to wonder what Mlima's Tale might have looked like onstage, there's something beautiful about being forced to imagine it. Hearing, but not seeing, Mlima enhances the illusion that we are listening to the words of an animal—words that capture the essence of a spirit that remains whole, even after that body that contains it is destroyed. Nottage embraces nuance—she isn't afraid to associate environmental activism with privilege—but her play is a clear warning to mind how we treat our planet. For Mlima is watching.
LISTEN: Mlima's Tale streams at profiletheatre.org/mlimas-tale through Nov. 4. A 24-hour rental costs $5-$40. WW readers who use the code OnAir50 will receive 50% off.