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Mlima’s Tale
by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Shariffa Chelimo Ali
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
June 6, 2021

Kambi Gathesha, Joe Ngo
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The last show I saw indoors before the lockdown was at the Rep (The Cake, in March 2020), so it’s fitting that the first indoor show I see, over a year later, is also a Rep production, although the venue is different. Staged at COCA’s new Berges Theatre, Mlima’s Tale is a small-cast production about a big subject, in more ways than one. In terms of the production, it’s about the Rep’s excellent cast and truly stunning production values, and it all begins with an elephant.

Mlima (Kambi Gathesha) means “Mountain” in Kenyan-Kiswahili, according to Director Shariffa Chelimo Ali’s note in the program. And Mlima is a mountain of an elephant, embodying all the grandeur and majesty suggested by the name. It’s a stunning performance by Gathesha, who doesn’t have to dress like an elephant to portray this character. Gathesha is simply attired, but his movements and body language suggest the towering Mlima, including his ears, his trunk, and his deliberate, measured gait. Mlima narrates his own story throughout most of the play, which focuses on the international ivory trade and the insidious power of avarice that can be more pervasive than people are willing to admit. The “Tale” leads the audience from a wildlife preserve in Kenya across the ocean to Vietnam and China, with many stops along the way as the spirit of Mlima “haunts” the various players involved as corruption, ignorance, compromise, and conflicting ideals drive their actions.

As presented by the Rep, the ultimate result of this storytelling is a fascinating, impeccably staged and acted production, anchored by Gathesha’s mesmerizing performance as Mlima. The rest of the ensemble is also superb, as three performers (Ezioma Asonye, Will Mann, and Joe Ngo) portray a variety of roles, from poachers, to government officials, to smugglers, to artists and business people, playing out the story in vivid detail as the mournful and haunting tone develops and grows, underscoring every moment. The staging is deft and lyrical, with excellent work from choreographer Kirven Douthit-Boyd, composer and sound designer Avi Amon, dialect coaches Julie Foh and Barbara Rubin, costume designer Helen Q. Huang, and lighting designer Jasmine Lesane, as the tale is crafted on the stage in a truly engaging and challenging way.

While this is a specific story about elephants and the ivory trade, it also carries a relatable message that applies to many situations of our times, and how systemic issues are much more pervasive than we often realize. In this play, though, the elephant is front and center, and never truly leaves the story even though he is killed at the very beginning (as is mentioned in promotional materials for the show, so this isn’t really a spoiler). Mlima’s presence looms throughout every moment, and the hope is that his story will linger in the minds of audience members. It’s a truly compelling tale, and the Rep’s company tells it with intense emotion and power.

Ezioma Asonye, Will Mann
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Mlima’s Tale in the Berges Theatre at COCA until July 11, 2021

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