If You’re Listening
In her landmark poem “Origins and History of Consciousness,” Adrienne Rich addresses what she calls “the true nature of poetry. The drive / to connect. The dream of a common language.” This dream reaches beyond the human:
I have dreamed of going to bed
as walking into clear water ringed by a snowy wood
white as cold sheets, thinking, I’ll freeze in there.
My bare feet are numbed already by the snow
but the water
is mild, I sink and float
like a warm amphibious animal
that has broken the net, has run
through fields of snow leaving no print;
this water washes off the scent —
You are clear now
of the hunter, the trapper
the wardens of the mind —
yet the warm animal dreams on
of another animal
swimming under the snow-flecked surface of the pool,
and wakes, and sleeps again.
No one sleeps in this room without
the dream of a common language.
The “I” of this poem dreams of moving through a winter landscape “like a warm amphibious animal.” She addresses this animal in the second person — “You are clear now” — then moves fluidly into its mind. It, in turn, is dreaming “of another animal / swimming under the snow-flecked surface of the pool.” On one level, this passage serves as a reminder that human beings are animals too, much as we may tend to forget that. The “warm animal dream[ing] on” may well be the “I” of the poem, or Rich herself, or me, or you. At the same time, however, this is a reflection on “the drive to connect,” to understand other beings across divides of all kinds.
From The Conference of the Birds to Dr. Doolittle, human beings have returned again and again to the idea that we might somehow learn to understand other animals. The fantasies of connection and wholeness that “the dream of a common language” sustains embrace the entire earth and all of its inhabitants. If all human beings somehow came to understand one another, that would be staggering. But if we all learned to speak Sparrow and Spanish, Tiger and Thai, Elephant and English, an entirely new world might be possible, free “of the hunter, the trapper / the wardens of the mind.”
All works of art make their own rules. In the first few moments of Mlima’s Tale, Lynn Nottage boldly stakes out a pair of principles that define the play. First, that person on stage in front of you is an elephant. Second, that elephant on stage in front of you is speaking English — or, more likely, Elephant that has been dubbed into English. We can safely assume that dubbing is in play here because there are several scenes later in the play that similarly take place in Somali, Chinese, Vietnamese and perhaps Swahili or Gĩkũyũ and have been translated into English for our benefit; “your Chinese is very good,” one character says to another, in a conversation that has been entirely in English up to that point. You’re no doubt familiar with this convention from the movies. It raises certain vexing questions — why do these two men on this Soviet submarine have Russian accents if they are, in actuality, speaking unaccented Russian to one another? — but it is nonetheless a useful tool for an artist to have at her disposal. It draws us closer; we have a common language.
This technique is all the more audacious when it comes to Mlima the elephant. Nottage’s imagination allows us access to an entire elephantine world. The tale Mlima tells recalibrates our senses and draws out new meanings. Like the “I” in “Origins and History of Consciousness,” we are warm animals dreaming of — and as — another:
MLIMA: When I was young I was taught by my grandmother to listen to the night. Really listen...for the rains in the distance...listen to the rustling of the brush...for the cries of friend or foe. She’d say you must listen with your entire body, feel how the earth shifts when there’s the slightest disruption, because how you listen can mean the difference between life and death.
Mlima “listens...with his entire body,” and that listening gives him an astonishing array of information about his surroundings. His awareness reaches back into the past, to “the verdant time before the violent crackle, before the drought and the madness.” It also makes him keenly aware of the danger he faces in the present, as a pair of poachers track him, intent on killing him for his magnificent tusks. “I hear everything,” he says, calling out to his mate and their children, whom he is trying to protect by leading the men away. “I hear you. I hear you.”
We have been given access to this intimate moment in and through the common language we share with this elephant. No matter how intermittently sympathetic the human characters in the play are, we stay with Mlima. He haunts us in large part because this opening sequence makes another one of Nottage’s defining principles plain: that elephants have consciousness, and with it memory, family, bravery, love.
It is tempting to say that these qualities humanize Mlima, but that is the exact opposite of what the play intends. The fact that elephants have rich emotional lives does not make them any more or less human. The capacity to feel is widely distributed in the animal world, drawing together species as dissimilar as elephants and orangutans, dolphins and dogs. Mlima is played by a human actor because some degree of accommodation is necessary for our understanding. If an actual elephant were to appear as Mlima we would have much less access to the character and his inner life. Nottage has provided the next-best thing to an elephant who can explain himself: a human surrogate, a living translation from Elephant to English, a stand-in whose performance returns us again and again to what it represents.
This emphasis on specificity extends to Nottage’s choice of setting as well. Mlima’s Tale does not take place in a picture-book “Africa” devoid of real-world referents. Mlima lives in Tsavo National Park in Kenya, where, despite some welcome good news in recent years, the calamitous decline of the elephant population remains a pressing concern. The specificity of his story and its emotional weight primes our capacity for empathy and allows Nottage to spin out from there to Nairobi, then Mombasa, then across the Indian Ocean to Vietnam and China, following one of the established routes of the illicit ivory trade. Interestingly, the play allows us to understand every step of this journey, granting us temporary access to a common language of money and subterfuge that Somali poachers, Kenyan game wardens, Zanzibari smugglers, American ship captains, Vietnamese customs agents and Chinese art buyers all share. We understand Mlima and those who prey on him.
This puts us in a unique position. “Aren’t you listening?” you may be tempted to shout as the human characters in this play discuss ivory as if it were simply a product to be bought and sold. Can’t you see that Mlima is standing there? Didn’t you hear him tell us about his grandmother, about “the verdant time before the violent crackle” of your guns? He told us listening “can mean the difference between life and death” and yet you blunder on unawares. But of course these people aren’t listening. They, unlike you, don’t have access to Mlima’s mind. They exist in a lonely, balkanized world in which a common language is only a dream — that is, the real world, the world to which you will return after the play is over. This is why it is difficult to condemn them all out of hand. In their own sphere of life, they have mouths to feed, budgets to balance, schedules to keep.
We are the only ones, for now, who can hear Mlima and understand what he is saying. So what does it mean to us when he says “If you’re listening, remember, I count forty-eight rains from memory, five summers of dried grass?” How might we answer him, if we’re listening?
Joshua Williams is a writer, director, teacher and scholar currently serving as an Assistant Professor Faculty Fellow in the Drama Department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. His academic research concerns the political figure of the animal in African theatre and performance. His articles, essays and reviews have appeared in ASTR Online, Theatre Journal, The Johannesburg Salon, Theatre Survey, Performance Research, African Theatre, Modern Drama, Africa is a Country, HowlRound, Brittle Paper and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is also translating the complete plays of the Tanzanian playwright Ebrahim Hussein from Swahili into English for Oxford University Press. His own plays have been developed or produced at theatres across the country and abroad. jdmwilliams.com
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