Adventurous DC theatre-goers, act now. You have but two more opportunities to see something unique and artistically gratifying: The National Theatre of Ghana performing its version of Tennessee Williams’ Ten Blocks on the Camino Real.
I saw it Monday night on the lawn outside the National Building Museum. Tuesday night, it will play at Georgetown University. (The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, which calls Georgetown U. home, is the leader of a consortium of organizations that have brought the production to town.)
A third performance on Wednesday night will be held at Silver Spring Fountain Plaza.
Ten Blocks on the Camino Real is the one-act version of what eventually became the full-length Camino Real, that ambitious and somewhat controversial Williams work which failed commercially on Broadway in the fifties, took its toll on the otherwise fruitful collaboration between playwright Williams and director Elia Kazan, and has continued to fascinate readers, theatre-goers, and theatre-makers ever since.
You may have seen the show at Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2000, or caught the all-star staged reading at Georgetown U. during the 2011 Tennessee Williams Centennial Festival.
You likely won’t have seen this one-act version; you certainly won’t have seen a production like this one.
We are told, before things get underway, that the play occurs in the marketplace and that this will be a “marketplace production.” Audiences are encouraged to move around and to dance, as the impulse might inspire us.
As if to underscore that invitation, the play proper begins with an actor in the face of someone sitting in the first row. Soon after, noise from the audience makes us realize that there are performers among us.
Presumably, all of the performances will occur outside, like the one I saw. Weather cooperated on Monday, a sultry late September evening. The neighborhood cooperated as well; only a couple of sirens briefly inserted that busy part of town into the otherwise transporting experience.
Let’s be upfront about a few things. The playing area is not raised, so sight-lines were challenging, although that didn’t cause too great a problem for me where I was sitting. More troubling was the sound system. The actors wore mics, which were annoyingly and constantly intermittent — the sort of technical glitch than can occur with a short run in an outdoor venue.
The result is that the play didn’t get the clearest reading that it will ever receive, as we constantly adjusted our ears while listening to an un-amplified line that became deafeningly loud mid-sentence — then throw thick Ghanian accents on top of that.
But we got used to making those aural adjustments, and what the evening lacked in textual nuance, it more than made up for in energy, in inventiveness, and in illumination, as the unusual take on a (to me) familiar play yielded insights and unexpected delights.
Lines such as “What is the name of this country?” resonate differently when delivered in the accent of a Ghanian actor. Some lines, such as one about distrusting newspapers, land on the ear differently now thanks to our current politics.
The one-act version, also, pedals more softly the literary allusions one finds in the full-length play. The one-act doesn’t include Lord Byron or Don Quixote. It does have Casanova, but the Marguerite and Esmeralda characters reference their inspirations more subtly.
Music and dance are central to the mission of The National Theatre of Ghana. A drummer is visible throughout the production as he plays nearly continuously through the performance.
That percussive presence, along with the distinctly demonstrative acting style and the actors’ movement work, create, more pronouncedly than in any other production I’ve experienced, the exoticness of the world Williams was trying to create. It gives vibrant color to what is certainly a very colorful play.
The play involves themes and lines that echo other, more familiar and more successful, Williams plays, and they will resonate with any Williams aficionado. The primary theme — the need to survive and to assert individuality and identity in an aggressively indifferent universe — is communicated powerfully in this production.
(This may not be felt at the other venues, but the fact that passersby on 5th Street could stop and listen to the performance which occurred mere feet from them — but were segregated from the admitted audience — echoed in an eerie way the social stratification of the characters.)
Ten Blocks on the Camino Real
closes September 27, 2017
Details and tickets
I’m not entirely sure how much is a function of the shorter version of the script as against what the Ghanian cast brings to it, but some of the characters play quite differently here. Both Casanova and Esmerelda felt less desperate and fragile than I remember those characters from previous viewings. Certainly the wonderfully earthy Esmerelda of Joycelyn Delali was quite an assertive and vivid personality.
I loved the ambiance created by the drummer (Godwin Awador) and his textual interpolations during the early part of the play (mainly repeating the name of the street, “Camino Real”). At the same time as it was repetitive and reflective of the nervous energy of the characters (and the cast), the drumming also added to the flamboyance of the world of the play. (It reminded me of the John Huston film of The Night of the Iguana, and how the music and dancing of Ava Gardner’s houseboys was such a constant in that movie.)
All of the actors have wonderful presence: the creepy Officer of Eli Kwesi Foli; the disreputable Proprietor Gutman of Mawuli Semevo; the intriguing Gypsy of Esther Addo-Scott.
Emmanuel Ghartey as Casanova has a wonderful monologue that is a highlight of the evening; another is the cool song after he gets news of his eviction. Abena Takyi, who plays Marguerite, is blessed with one of those faces that speaks volumes before she says a word.
Our hero is Kilroy, he of the heart as big as the head of a child, played by Isaac Fiagbor. His dance with a chair, following his scene with Esmerelda, is a real treat.
Mabel Ocloo, Eldad Wontumi, and Benjamin Adzika round out the cast as a sort of protean chorus who we mostly see as street cleaners until they engage in terrific schtick (I won’t spoil) involving an autopsy.
The action occurs before a set of posters which look like the sort promoting pop stars that one might find plastered on the walls of alleys; in fact, they are cleverly introducing us to the characters (and helping us keep the characters distinct).
Director David Kaplan (Curator and Co-Founder of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, which is another organization involved with this tour) ends the evening with a joyous Ghanian-inflected dance. It fits this evening, even if it doesn’t conform to my memory of the more somber manner in which Williams ended his longer version of this story.
I’ll break with tradition a little and give this production a qualified rating: If you are somebody who really will enjoy something a little outside the box, a little off-the-beaten-path, a little unusual, a little exotic (and you know who you are):
Ten Blocks on the Camino Real, by Tennessee Williams. Directed by David Kaplan. Featuring Joycelyn Delali, Isaac Fiagbor, Abena Takyi, Emmanuel Ghartey, Mawuli Semevo, Esther Addo-Scott, Eli Kwesi Foli, Mabel Ocloo, Eldad Wontumi, Benjamin Adzika, and Godwin Awador. Stage Manager: Agnes Panfred. Technical Director: Louis Davis. Producer: Charlene Donaghy. Executive Director: Jef Hall-Flavin. Produced by The National Theatre of Ghana. Reviewed by Christopher Henley.