Mlima’s Tale

Saint Louis’s Own Raja – An Asian Elephant

Anne, Joanie and I returned to live theater for the first time in about a year-and-a-half, with the showing of Mlima’s Tale, at The Rep. We made a night of it, with dinner and a show. There were a lot of oddities about this performance, some of them Covid induced, some from the relative novelty of the experience. The venue was not at the Rep’s usual fare in Webster. We were in U-City at COCA (Center of Creative Arts). We dined in the Loop and having already sampled our two favorite restaurants there, last weekend, we tried something new, Salt + Smoke, STL style BBQ. It was good and not too WW budget busting. After dinner, we decamped to the theater. COCA has a beautiful new facility that I had visited once before as part of a bicycle ride no less. I was on one of Trailnet’s community-art rides. These rides are where various art related venues are strung together by two wheels. We did improv on that first visit to COCA. On this night, we were all seated in the audience, which was a very lonely place, what with seating available for only 10% of capacity. Masks were required and the play ran less than ninety minutes, but at least we got our toes in the water again.

Mlima’s Tale is a play narrated by an elephant, a dead elephant at that. It tells the tale of how African ivory goes from poacher in the bush to wealthy art buyers in China. It is a searing indictment of everyone involved. This play uses a story like approach, employing the La Ronde¹-inspired device of relating its story in short episodes in which one character from the preceding scene appears in the next. There are only four actors in this play. Three performers play the multitude of characters, including the poachers, a park warden, a police chief, an African government official, a Chinese collector, a Vietnamese smuggler, a boat captain, a master ivory carver and a wealthy art buyer. It is through these characters that three of the actors rotate through. The fourth actor, plays only one character that of the elephant Mlima, who is murdered in the first scene. As a ghost or more corporally as his disembodied tusks, Mlima guides us through the rest of the play. Unwillingly, he leads us from one hand to another, in the smuggling operation that is the illegal world ivory trade. A trade that has already seen the African elephant population fall from 1.5 million to 400K, since the outlawing of ivory trading and is on course towards African elephant extinction in the next twenty year or less. There are no good guys in this play. Only one victim and a multitude of perpetrators of his murder.

  1. La Ronde takes its name from an 1897 play of the same name.

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