This Lynn Nottage drama is pure kinetic energy, exploring the illicit ivory trade through the haunting death of Mlima, an African elephant. Griffin Theatre Company’s production, a midwest premiere directed by Jerrell L. Henderson, thrives on its use of movement, sound, and staging to illustrate our shared complicity in the poaching of a vulnerable species. Mlima, whose name means “mountain” in Swahili, is played by a mostly silent David Goodloe, who looms large, literally, over the entire 90 minutes. He’s the show’s emotional canvas, employing ethereal, athletic movements and an intense, textured gaze that as reads both accusatory and mournful. As Mlima’s tusks become increasingly objectified, Goodloe turns his body into a floppy piece of meat, resigned and exhausted.
A tight, propulsive story, this production leverages a capable ensemble of six to bring to life the entire chain of events from Mlima’s death in Kenya to the unveiling of an ivory carving in the home of a wealthy collector across the world. By bringing so many people and geographies under the tent of this shameful practice, from police to park rangers to government officials to pilots, Nottage makes the world a bit smaller and the tragedy less abstract. As does her insertion of well-researched and disturbing facts, like poachers using tourists’ safari photos on social media to locate their prey. After absorbing the question an ivory dealer asks a collector–What price are you willing to pay for beauty?–you’ll walk away questioning the provenance and unknown costs of any rare valuables you possess. v