Lynn Nottage may be the first woman in history to twice win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but she’s a long way from getting comfortable as an artist. “I’m hyperconscious of trying to push the envelope,” she says. And a year after her acclaimed Sweat moved from The Public Theater to Broadway—earning her first Tony nod and her second Pulitzer—Nottage is doing just that. With Mlima’s Tale, the playwright challenged herself to write something that was “unabashedly theatrical.”
Mlima’s Tale, directed by Jo Bonney and now in its world premiere at The Public, tells the story of a magnificent elephant trapped inside the clandestine ivory market. The play follows what happens to Mlima’s tusks as they travel from the hands of the poacher and along the food chain.
“This play is vastly different than Sweat,” explains Nottage. “It’s not naturalistic. There are magical realistic elements—there’s a talking elephant whose spirit travels throughout the rest of the play. I think structurally and visually, this is very different to the other work I’ve done.”
The development process was also a change for Nottage, who has spent the last decade gathering information for her plays as a journalist might—in the field conducting interviews. With Ruined, Nottage traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo; for Sweat, she spent months with the residents of Reading, Pennsylvania.
“With Mlima’s Tale, it was lovely, in some ways, not to have to travel far but to really immerse myself in the literature,” says Nottage. “There is such a wealth of information, I didn’t feel that I had to do that research.” Because the play, for all its theatricality, is still very much rooted in the real details of Africa’s ivory trade and how it continues to impact wildlife. “It’s an environmental play,” says Nottage. “We, as human beings, consume at such a rate and I’ve been thinking about the price of that consumption and the way in which it’s destroying our environment. Elephants and other rare species are caught in that web; I think of Mlima’s journey as a metaphor for [that].” Her hope is that the play will open audience’s eyes to the issue and prompt them to take action.
Despite her years of experience and achievements, Nottage says there is always an element of fear when it comes to creating new work. “There’s always fear involved,” she says. “There’s fear that people won’t meet the piece where it is. There’s fear that they’ll come with certain expectations that prevent them from engaging with the play as it is.
“You never quite know how to do it,” says the playwright. “Every play is a little scary because you don’t know whether you’ve fully realized the ambition.”