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Edited and Published by Robert W. McDowell

February 2, 2023 Issue
PART 3C2 (January 28, 2022)

A FREE Weekly E-mail Newsletter Covering Theater, Dance, Music, and Film in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill/Carrboro Area of North Carolina Since April 2001.


Mlima's Tale at Burning Coal Belongs to Preston Edgar
Campbell, Who Plays Mlima's Ghost with Eerie Power

Preston Edgar Campbell plays the ghost of the elephant Mlima, opposite Ada Chang, in Mlima's Tale (photo by Cari Grindem-Corbett)

Mlima -- in the title of Burning Coal Theatre Company's Jan. 26-Feb. 12 production of Lynn Nottage's 2018 Off-Broadway play, Mlima's Tale -- means "mountain" in Swahili. It is also the name of a great bull elephant, a "tusker," roaming the Kenyan savannah until he's killed for his tusks.

A desperately poor Somali ivory poacher wonders if it is true that "[T]he elephant will haunt you if not given a proper burial." It seems so. We follow Mlima's ghost through 16 scenes as his tusks are handed from one shady dealer to the next before they end up decorating the home of a newly rich Chinese couple.

Preston Edgar Campbell (left) as Mlima's ghost hovers over Sean "Ickye" Delgado-Cruz in Burning Coal
Theatre Company's Jan. 26-Feb. 12 presentation of Mlima's Tale (photo by Cari Grindem-Corbett)

Initially, the audience is confronted with a large white tunnel with a tusk shaped tail running the length of the stage. Projected behind it we see a dark blue night, dominated by a full moon. Each of the 16 scenes' titles appears above the projection as the play moves forward.

Xinuan Li's ingenious and initially mysterious scenic design cleverly unfolds with each chapter of the tusks' journey, and the costuming is perfect. This writer's late mother, a professional theater costumer, believed that the costume should tell the audience who the character is the moment that they walk on stage. Calypso Michelet's designs do this perfectly.

The Burning Coal cast for Mlima's Tale includes (from left) Sean "Ickye" Delgado-Cruz as Rahman and Others, Khalil LeSaldo as
Guthinji and Others, Preston Edgar Campbell as Mlima, and Ada Chang as Geedi and Others (photo by Cari Grindem-Corbett)

Ana V. Radulescu's directing and stage manager Cynita Lew keep the four cast members moving briskly through multiple roles, bringing in Lynn Nottage's script at 80 minutes running time.

The show belongs to Preston Edgar Campbell, who plays Mlima -- or rather, Mlima's ghost -- with eerie power. Campbell is the only character not literally costumed, but the viewer cannot mistake him for one of the human characters, Willie Hinton's choreography sees to that. At Mlima's death, Campbell is covered with white powder to become Mlima's ghost. As the tusks pass through the illegal ivory machine, the ghost smears a white stain on each cog.

Ada Chang plays Geedi and Others in Mlima's Tale at Burning Coal (photo by Cari Grindem-Corbett)

Nineteen other roles are divided with unequal results among an ensemble of three actors: Ada Chang, Sean "Ickye" Delgado-Cruz, and Khalil LeSaldo. Each shines in several of their roles, and the other roles are serviceable. Ada Chang stood out as a ship's captain and a meek serving girl, and was fantastic as a new rich Chinese wife. Delgado-Cruz was at his best playing an earnest but outmatched game warden as well a slimy ivory dealer looking for contacts; and LeSaldo was terrific as a corrupt police captain, a slippery politician, and an officious, corrupt customs officer.

Khalil LeSaldo (left) plays Guthinji and Others and Sean "Ickye" Delgado-Cruz plays Rahman and Others (photo by Cari Grindem-Corbett)

Lynn Nottage has won two Pulitzer Prizes and a number of other accolades for her plays. Mlima's Tale was first performed in New York City at The Public Theater in April 2018.

At least a dozen Burning Coal volunteers, who work everything from lights to house management, do so perfectly by their invisibility. It's often a thankless job, and I thank them.

Lynn Nottage's MLIMA'S TALE (In Person at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 28 and 29 and Feb. 2-5 and 9-12), directed by Ana V. Radulescu, choreographed by Willie Hinton, and starring Preston Edgar Campbell as Mlima, Ada Chang as Geedi and Others, Sean "Ickye" Delgado-Cruz as Rahman and Others , and Khalil LeSaldo as Guthinji and Others (Burning Coal Theatre Company in the Murphey School Auditorium in Raleigh). DIGITAL PROGRAM: STUDY GUIDE: VIDEOS: 2022-23 MAINSTAGE SEASON: THE PRESENTER:,,,, and PODCASTS: THE VENUE: and DIRECTIONS/PARKING: COVID PRECAUTIONS: MLIMA'S TALE (2018 Off-Broadway Play):, and, THE SCRIPT (excerpts): and LYNN NOTTAGE:,,,, and TICKETS: $30 ($20 students, educators, and active-duty military personnel and $25 seniors 65+), except $20 Thursdays, $5 weeknights for students 18 and under, and Pay-What-You-Can Day (Jan. 29th). (NOTE: Pay-What-You-Can Day tickets will only be sold at the door, starting one hour before showtime.) Click here to buy tickets. INFORMATION: 919-834-4001 or [email protected]. PLEASE DONATE TO: Burning Coal Theatre Company.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Joel Haas first acted in Raleigh Little Theatre's 1968 production of What Price Glory. Then in 1973 he was in several Theatre in the Park productions, including Cyrano, in which he played Le Bret. It wasn't until 1990 that he appeared on stage again, this time as a homeless veteran named Lou in The Speed of Darkness.

Haas' mother, Douglas Haas Bennett (1927-2018), was a professional theater costumer, the first full-time costumer that RLT hired. She later founded her own theater supply company, Raleigh Creative Costumes, in 1975.

Between 1981 and 2021, Joel Haas worked as a freelance steel and general materials sculptor in the Triangle. Since 2020, he has been writing magazine articles and a blog called Our War with Paraguay and How to Sit in a Hoopskirt: The U.S. Between 1848 and 1868 as Told by the Newspapers of the Time. (And, yes, the United States almost went to war with Paraguay in 1858.) Click here to read Joel Haas' reviews for Triangle Review.


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