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Review: MLIMA'S TALE at Berges Theatre

The Rep Returns with the Powerful Mlima’s Tale

Review: MLIMA'S TALE at Berges Theatre

The Rep Returns with the Powerful Mlima's Tale

Globalism, greed and international politics collide in the Repertory Theatre St. Louis' sterling production of Mlima's Tale.

Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage's poignant and emotional play about the horrors of the global ivory trade is the company's only production for its augmented 2020/2021 season.

Returning to live theater after a long "intermission," The Rep could not have found a more engaging or impactful work. Directed by Shariffa Chelimo Ali and performed by a talented ensemble that traveled to St. Louis during a pandemic to bring Mlima's Tale to life. The result is a moving, spiritual, and provocative production that leaves audiences emotionally drained by its end.

Mlima is one of the last great tuskers, a pack of wise and experienced Kenyan elephants who are revered by locals and loved by both soldiers and citizens alike. A symbol of national pride, these great elephants are facing dwindling numbers and possible extinction in the coming decades. Sadly, in spite of the government's best efforts to save them, these grand bests are still targeted by poachers, eager to sell their tusks as trophies to wealthy buyers.

As Nottage points out vividly, elephant ivory has been considered a prized luxury good for centuries. Desired for their durability and beauty, ivory tusks can be carved, engraved, sawed, polished, bleached, and stained to create a multitude of objects, including Buddha sculptures, jewelry, and dinnerware.

This desire for materialistic wealth serves as the catalyst for the tense drama unfolding onstage. As the play opens, Mlima, a majestic and powerful elephant is on the run from hunters who have been tracking him for forty days. Scared, yet determined to live, his instinct for survival makes him dangerous prey.

Although he has traveled long distances to elude his hunters, Mlima, armed with great strength and the spirit of his ancestors, is brutally murdered for his ivory. However, the savagery of his death comes with consequences as his restless spirit troubles all of those who participate in the sale, shipping, and trading of his tusks.

Unbeknownst to his killers, the dirty officials who hire them, and the traders who plot to smuggle his tusks from their ancestral land, the magnitude of Mlima's death and the symbolism he represents to the Kenyan people cannot be ignored as Mlima's iconic status only underscores the cruelty and barbarism brought on by his senseless murder.

Compelling and painful, The Rep's production of Mlima's Tale emotionally captures the seedy underbelly of global trading, especially the illegal ivory trade, an unsavory world where big money is exchanged with wanton disregard for life or respect for the indigenous people who revere the animals they strive to save from extinction. Despite efforts to keep his tusks in Kenya, resourceful black marketeers manage to smuggle them halfway around the world to a fashionable residence in Asia where they are displayed as a vulgar symbol of power and status.

Overall, Lynn Nottage's haunting and riveting tale of wealth-driven globalism is an angst-filled tale filled with themes of economic disparity, animal conservation, global trade, and human cruelty. As visually stunning as it is verbally sharp, Ali's production mixes elements of dance, and pantomime while shunning elaborate sets and bold costuming, which allows the production team to focus on creating overwhelming moments of drama.

The cast of Mlima's Tale cast includes Kambi Gathesha in the title role. Mesmerizing from beginning to end, his every word and movement heightens the tension and guides the production from crescendo to crescendo. It is impossible to not watch him. Ezioma Asonye, Will Mann, and Joe Ngo are all terrific as they juggling multiple roles respectively.

Facing a myriad of challenges including making theater in a pandemic, and staging a play in a new home, The Rep has created a bold and audacious production that defines their identity as a company that is not afraid of presenting well-acted and socially relevant work. As they lead us back to in-person theater, The Rep is protective of audience and performer safety. As a result, the venue capacity is capped at 25 percent, in line with St. Louis County Department of Health's COVID-19 guidelines.

Performances of Mlima's Tale run at COCA's Berges Theatre from May 28th to July 11th. Showtimes and ticket information can be found here. For more information on the Rep visit

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From This Author - Rob Levy