“Mlima’s Tale” Showing at the Adrienne Arsht Center Evokes Conversation

Mlima’s Tale is a ghost story.

A haunting, crafted by the two-time Pulitzer winning Lynn Nottage, about the underground international ivory market as she leads us, step by step down the winding staircase that is this unsavory world.

Mlima’s Tale is a ghost story, wherein the ghost that haunts these characters is made up from the repercussions of their actions. 

The Adrienne Arsht Center starts their season of Theatre Up Close through Zoetic Stage with such a monumental piece, asking us all to look at the way we affect the world around us. Directed by Stuart Meltzer, with a simple cast of 4, this play does not falter. Each actor, aside from Mlima played by Jerel Brown, takes on the face of more than one character, and with each one having the confidence and direction necessary, they succeed in creating a fully realized world that is already there on the page.

Zoetic Stage – MLIMA’S TALE (Pictured – Jerel Brown, Paul Torres Wong. Photo – Justin Namon.)

The play starts in silence, with Mlima slowly taking the stage, at first he stands there, with a human-posture, as if he is waiting for something, and then, slowly but surely, he starts to move, the movement leading into something more animalistic, until he starts walking, the steps heavy, his arms transform, his gait becomes that of an elephant – and all of this is expertly crafted with movement direction from Herman Payne. I mention all this before I even discuss the performances or direction because this opening is so important as the set up for how we perceive the rest of the play, that without it, the impact would not be the same. Any and all movement throughout the play is soft, precise, and powerful. 

With a cast a four, and a journey such as this one, actors are bound to take on more than one persona, a fun little gift for them to stretch their muscles, and play. The one exception being Mlima, a role that requires ones complete and focused attention to detail as it is a powerful and heavy responsibility to carry.  

That power emanates especially from Jerel Brown, the titular character of this story, the only actor that portrays a singular role. From the first step, he took command of the stage, just like the bull elephant he personified, his presence was a commanding one. The pain and afterlife were given a grounded foundation with his voice, and even without speaking, his presence took over the stage. The role of Mlima might seem like a simple one, but the challenge lies in the silence, in the directed and specified movement, all of which Jerel conquered with ease, all the way to the end as his final movement punched the still air all around him.

Zoetic Stage – MLIMA’S TALE (Pictured – Jerel Brown. Photo – Justin Namon.)

 The rest of the cast is made up of “players”; Phillip Andrew Santiago, Paul Torres Wong, and Sydney Presendieu. Each one dawns completely different personalities and with that, dialects – which I will admit at first I was worried. A dialect can either be good, or absolutely atrocious, but thankfully the confidence in which they approached the text with carried them along unscathed by the dialect trap and I can only imagine that this trap was avoided thanks to the work of dialect coach, Rebecca Covey.

Philip Andrew Santiago had a presence that you wanted to be friends with. No matter the character, no matter the despicable task or lie they were involved in, his performance created confusion – only because you find yourself wanting to talk to each person he embodied, he made these people human.

Zoetic Stage – MLIMA’S TALE (Pictured – Phillip Andrew Santiago, Sydney Presendieu. Photo – Justin Namon.)

Paul Torres Wong disappeared from the stage, and each switch he made was so distinct and fully realized, from the way he walked to the way he talked. I didn’t know if I should hate and love him but because of the clear differences between each character, he made it easy to pick and choose. 

As the youngest cast member, you would think that Sydney Presendieu might be the weakest link, but the complete opposite is true. She belonged on that stage, in that world, with a strong, dynamic, and vibrant characterization for each one that made me wonder where she has been, and when can we see more of her. 

Stuart Meltzer has gathered a near perfect ensemble, constructing a world with and through them that might not have had the proper life it deserves within the South Florida Theatre Community. Now it goes without saying that this play is, well, it’s a heavy one – one that could easily be dragged down by its own weight with an amateur director, but thankfully Stuart doesn’t give it the chance. He makes sure to highlight even the smallest of comedic moments, because without light, darkness cannot exist, and it is obvious he knows this as those moments are given a chance to breathe thanks to the actor’s delivery and direction. 

Without a formal set Stuart had to create one through the ensemble and the technical elements, one that felt like what we were experiencing wasn’t just some obscure Avant-garde piece, but instead a very specific voyage as we traveled from scene to scene, further and further down the dark and dank rabbit hole that is the underground tusk trade. 

Scenic design that laid the foundation for this story was by none other than Michael McKeever. While he primarily works as a playwright, his design was an elegant one. It was simple, clean, empty, with a traverse stage set up that gave us a sense of traveling as the actors moved from end to end throughout each scene. The set was a stark but subtle contrast to the world in which it was representing, the grimy one involved with the poaching, killing, and selling of elephant tusks. 

Zoetic Stage – MLIMA’S TALE (Pictured – Jerel Brown. Photo – Justin Namon.)

Along with the set came the lighting and sound design, each dancing together as the play progressed. Lighting design by Rebecca Montero took us from day to night, from dream to nightmare, from life to death – the transitions filled with purpose and ease. Matt Corey gave us a world through sound, one that we could imagine, and then one we wish we hadn’t. His sound design ranged from the real sounds of nature to the harsh sounds of pain that sometimes we don’t know how to describe. Each of these worked in tandem with the movement choreography that gave us an unexpected ghost story. 

This is an extremely hard world to navigate, but through Stuart Meltzer, and every single one of these artists, I think it is one that is accomplished with respect and a world that you don’t want to miss out on.

Now here is where my dilemma lies…  I want to tell you and everyone I know to come and see this show, because it is a great production, and an amazing play… but it isn’t a cheap one. Standard tickets range from $55 to $60, and while that might not seem like much to a certain percentage of the theatre community, it is to the ones that should be able to see shows like this. If you can find cheap tickets through culture shock(which sellout quick and are for a certain age group), or can score some industry tickets(which aren’t expressed to the public on how to access those) then great! But the truth of the matter is that South Florida Theater is too expensive for the artists that we should want to reach, for the artists that we need to stick around in order to grow and evolve as a community… point is, I have a hard time promoting theatre that to be completely honest I could barely afford myself. But if you have the means, if you can afford to do so, then please, catch this show, don’t miss out on the conversation that Lynn Nottage has put together for us. 

This production will run until October 30th, at the Adrienne Arsht Center, get your tickets below.


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