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Mlima’s Tale and the Gift of Disruption
Yanoula Athanassakis

Lynn Nottage’s Mlima’s Tale offers a deeply moving story of an elephant who is violently reduced to, and commodified as, a set of ivory tusks. Like any artistic work tackling complex forms of nonhuman-human animal violence and long histories of injustice on a global scale, Mlima’s Tale can easily overwhelm. As somebody who teaches courses on environmental literature and Animal Studies at NYU, I know the importance of considering material that overwhelms. By the same token, as somebody who spends a lot of time thinking about representations of animals in popular culture, I know that animals on stage and across various forms of media also always defy and disrupt even the most meticulously planned artwork.

Though they can feel overwhelming, these moments of disruption are moments of plentitude and possibility, not because “the animal” offers human beings some added knowledge about themselves, but because such moments query and put pressure on our anthropocentric modes of operating. They challenge our conceptions of animals (and humans’ abilities to portray them) and are often awkward, comedic, unruly, confrontational, obscene, playful, and vaguely – and sometimes clearly – disturbing and delightful.

Mlima, this devastatingly majestic creature, is killed by poachers within the first section of the play. What is left is his spirit and the ironically disembodied, objectified ivory tusks. Throughout the play there is a constant focus on Mlima’s physicality, or on the actor who plays the part of Mlima, who “transforms into the tusks” and streaks his face with ivory paint. Nottage adds a “note” in the script that “as Mlima journeys through the play, he leaves a white streak of paint or dust on every person he encounters . . . . A mark of complicity.” This is a play that according to Ben Brantley of The New York Times, leaves you haunted and believing “in ghosts.” Mlima is in fact always spectral in this play: there’s neither a real elephant nor a big stuffed doll meant to be him. He is represented in a way that further underlines the absence of his actual flesh (through shadows and sounds). The absenting of Mlima’s body makes space for various histories and competing paradigms of violence to be mapped onto its own absence: that of colonialism, racism, globalization, wildlife trafficking, the violence of human nonhuman animal relations, to name just some examples. Audience members, then, are “haunted” both by a sense of complicity and responsibility and by the sense that after leaving the play, they cannot simply shake it off.

There’s often a feeling of paralysis that accompanies learning of problems that cut across unfathomably large swaths of time and space. In the case of Mlima’s Tale, you are faced with your own potential complicity in Mlima’s death and confronted with the possibility that even if you’re not directly at fault for it, there is more than likely a related or interconnected way in which you could do better or could simply do something. The Hollywood Reporter’s Frank Scheck writes that after seeing the play, “you wind up feeling exactly the same way as when it began.” That, to me, is the definition of becoming overwhelmed by an artistic work that progressively humbles you as it reveals itself. Such a feeling is also the mark of a work that brings multiple, brutal forms of violence to your attention and leaves you thoroughly devastated – one might counterintuitively understand those feelings as ones of indifference.

As Nottage’s Mlima disrupts, Mlima decenters, and as Mlima decenters humans/anthropos from the story of Mlima, an entirely different way of reading and seeing and being with animals emerges. The undoing of this type of thinking, of foregrounding one species over another and one’s centrality over another’s, is the most electrifying part of what “the animal” – Mlima – does. In that process of putting the nonhuman animal front and center, overlapping multi-species relationships resist a simple swap. Mlima’s centrality in this tale, for example, is de facto because of the human animal’s desperation, because of the vestiges of colonialism and the continued violence of racism (and also because of unbridled capitalism). One cannot be separated from the other. Violence, like justice, can be intersectional.

At the end of the play, as Mlima’s tusks are about to be revealed at their final destination, one character asks another what he thinks and the other replies: “I don’t know man, I’m a vegan. I gave up meat a couple of years ago and it doesn’t sit right.” This was a part of the script that I kept replaying in my mind – maybe because it comes at the end of the play. Maybe it echoes the unsettled feelings of audience members as the lights are about to go out, as the play soon draws to a close, and you are left staring into the abyss of darkness on stage. A lot of things in this play don’t “sit right” and almost none of them have a simple and easy solution.

Because the remark has a comedic effect, as mentions of veganism often have in popular culture, it’s easy to brush past it. It’s also a “simple solution” or seems like one: a much-needed panacea at this stage of the play when we may all feel desperate to do something and numbed by a feeling of powerlessness. But it’s not, really. Of all people, as a vegan myself and as somebody who teaches courses on veganism, I wish I could say that it is. It’s also, to be exact, not clear that this character is a vegan and not a vegetarian and therefore seems unlikely that this version of veganism is more than a commitment to vegetarianism with some aspirations to do better (which are always great but confusing in this context).

The remark about veganism encompasses and could easily stand in for many other reactions one might have to the play about our everyday practices that have some peripheral positive impact on nonhuman animals but are absurd when more closely examined. Absurd in the sense that they don’t do much to stop the illegal wildlife trade and don’t do much for elephants in Africa, much less for a single poached elephant in Kenya.

The way that Nottage implies complicity and responsibility is actually the opposite of a haunting or of ephemerality. It’s real and tangible: it’s a mark. Characters are marked and remarked upon as being complicit. The artistic decision by Nottage to leave marks on her characters further emphasizes the sense audience members may have that this large creature, Mlima, has left them different than when they walked in and while that’s an enormous responsibility, it’s also a gift to be disrupted. Societies are headed in frightening directions in terms of their treatment of their own and other species and of the planet. To have the status quo disrupted is a good thing. To be disrupted by Mlima is a good thing.

Yanoula Athanassakis is Clinical Associate Professor of English and Environmental Studies at NYU, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, and Director of the NYU Environmental Humanities Initiative. Her research and teaching interests include American literature, the environmental humanities, animal studies, food studies, race and ethnic studies, gender studies, globalization, and environmental justice. Athanassakis’ book (2017), Environmental Justice in Contemporary U.S. Narratives is part of Routledge’s Environmental Humanities series. She teaches courses on US literature, veganism, environmental justice, and animal studies.


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