The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis taps into the essence and meaning of death in the evocative and insistent 10 Blocks on the Camino Real. An examination of the moments between life and death set on a temptation-laden street known as the Camino Real, the 10-scene short play is filled with vibrant characters and engrossing stories. With its local sponsorship of the National Theatre of Ghana and Artcentricity, USA collaboration, the festival continues to demonstrate measured, purposeful growth.
American playwright Tennessee Williams penned the exploration, but his ideas about the transition from this life, as interpreted by the National Drama Company of Ghana under the direction of David Kaplan, clearly translate across cultures. Folktales, dancing, and songs from Ghana, plus traditional drumming by Awador Godwin, interweave almost seamlessly with the stories. The street cleaners, with their hauntingly mysterious masks and rituals, resonate with fears that nearly everyone feels at some point in their life.
The short scenes are all connected and primarily viewed through the perspective of the legendary Kilroy, a champion boxer with an abnormally large and occasionally sentimental heart. Isaac Fiagbor ensures Kilroy is sympathetic and likeable, an everyman who is not perfect but has nonetheless led a good life. As the Proprietor of the local hotel and restaurant, Mawuli Semevo is an amiable and inviting narrator -- until you wear out your welcome and it's time to go. The two serve as the audience's guide through a strange but not unfamiliar setting, poised precipitously between life and death.
As we travel each block, additional characters interact with Kilroy and the Proprietor while adding their story to the colorful tapestry. Esther Ado-Scott is the clever and scheming Gypsy and Joycelyn Delali the beautiful and beguilingly genuine Esmeralda. Abena Takyi and Emmanuel Ghartey are the sophisticated lovers Marguerite and Casanova, and Eli Kwesi Foli is the stern and piercing Madrecita Baron de Charlus and an officer. Yaa Ocloo, Eldad Wontumi, and Benjamin Adzika are the street cleaners and other characters.
In many ways, Williams' script feels like a series of loosely connected sketches, a sort of rumination on the moments between our death and realization of such by the self. More simply put, 10 Blocks on the Casino Real is imaginative speculation proposing an answer to "What comes next?" The National Theatre of Ghana demonstrates, with deep appreciation for the original text, the universal nature of the question. What makes the show so very affecting is how easily we can connect and understand the stories, even in moments when we don't know the words or recognize the language of the telling.
Kaplan directs from a deep knowledge of the material, and it is clear that the company shares his passion and scholarship. The show moves as seamlessly from block to block as it does from English to the more African and French-influenced language of Ghana. Fiagbor is thoroughly engaged and engaging, at times his reactions are so in the moment you feel your own heart beating with his, and his scenes with Delali have unexpected charm and the painfully reckless abandon of new love. The surprising authenticity of their feelings is countered by the stylistic and superficial interaction between Takyi and Ghartey, creating a pleasant tension. Godwin keeps the show moving at a brisk pace with the constant, but varying rhythm of his drums and he and Semevo occasionally engage in a call and response that would be recognizable in many American houses of worship.
The National Theatre of Ghana and Artcentricity collaboration was presented at various locations throughout the city the weekend of September 8-11, 2017. In addition to offering free shows for the general public, several of the performances were attended by students from area schools. A question and answer period was held after each of these performances and many of the students noted that they were surprised by how easy it was to understand the play and feel connected to the themes the show explores.
Fans of the playwright are encouraged to follow the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis to stay informed. The company, which will produce its third Festival next spring, is to be commended for bringing the thoroughly captivating 10 Blocks on the Camino Real to St. Louis audiences.