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'Mlima's Tale' review: An elephant's pain and power 

Kevin Mambo, Ito Aghayere, Sahr Ngaujah and Jojo

Kevin Mambo, Ito Aghayere, Sahr Ngaujah and Jojo Gonzalez star in Lynn Nottage's drama "Mlima's Tale," presented by The Public Theater. Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT "Mlima's Tale"

WHERE Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

INFO $65, 212-967-7555, publictheater.org

BOTTOM LINE Lynn Nottage's powerful take on the ivory trade.

After winning Pulitzer Prizes for her gripping plays about the horrors faced by women in the Congo ("Ruined") and the ravaged economy in a small Rust Belt town ("Sweat"), Lynn Nottage has taken her theatrical magnifying glass to another atrocity — the perils faced by one of the world's seriously endangered species.

In "Mlima's Tale," her powerful new play at The Public Theater, Nottage presents a painful examination of the ongoing ivory trade that threatens the African elephant. In a tight 90 minutes, she and director Jo Bonney walk us through the intricate machinations required to smuggle a massive pair of tusks out of Kenya. The story's told through a series of meetings between poachers and police chiefs, ship captains and customs officials, craftsmen and customers, all played by three versatile actors — Kevin Mambo, Jojo Gonzalez and Ito Aghayere — with remarkable agility (and some impressive costume changes).

But the play's heart is Mlima, a towering tusker who has seen "48 rains" and is a much-loved creature in the game reserve where officials maintain they've done everything in their power to protect him. Played with a deep intensity and athletic grace by Sahr Ngaujah, Mlima is lost in the early moments to poachers who've tracked him for more than a month. Lost, but not departed, as his looming shadow watches over every exchange in the effort to transport his tusks, transferring the white tribal-like paint that covers his body to everyone complicit in the illicit transactions.

I’ll be traveling to Kenya this summer and not a second will go by that I won’t obsess over the fate of the elephants. And I hope beyond hope to see one with the imposing stature of the magnificent Mlima.

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