A Little Tennessee Comes Out of Africa to Michigan

. September 1, 2017.
An actor from The National Theatre of Ghana in Tennessee William’s “Ten Blocks On Camino Real.”
An actor from The National Theatre of Ghana in Tennessee William’s “Ten Blocks On Camino Real.”

The National Theatre of Ghana will come to Michigan to offer four public performances of Tennessee Williams’ one-act play, Ten Blocks on the Camino Real. The performances, sponsored by the Center for World Performance Studies at U-M, will be part of a residency from September 12th-17th that will also include several classes and workshops.

Each of the performances will take place outdoors: at the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti Farmers Markets; CMAP Detroit; and the Diag on U-of-M’s Central campus. Current reached out to Residential College theatre professor Katherine Mendeloff, who directs the annual Shakespeare in the Arb productions, and who helped bring the troupe to Michigan.

Tell us about the work of the National Theatre of Ghana and how you came to know about this project.

I’ve been part of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival since it started in 2006 and have brought several productions of mine to the Festival. David Kaplan, the initiator and curator of the Festival, was a classmate of mine at Yale Drama School. Through David I heard about this Ghanaian production; he directed the production in Ghana and was planning to bring it to Provincetown this coming September. He was hoping to set up a tour of several cities and I offered to bring the troupe to Michigan. This is their first time in America, I believe.

This production of Ten Blocks on the Camino Real has transformed the play. What are some of the changes, and what about this play is ideal for this kind of transformation?

The play is very entertaining. It’s quite presentational and moves quickly, so it suits outside performance. It’s composed of ten scenes which follow the American protagonist, Kilroy, as he tries to “make it” in a foreign culture. Down on his luck, he remains an eternal optimist. We see him interact with a range of characters drawn from legend, and in the Ghana production, figures like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are re-imagined as Ghanaian mythic characters. Similarly, the music of the “Blue Guitar” which punctuates the action, is changed to African drumming.

What enables the play to speak to two cultures as different as mid-20th century America and 21st century Ghana. What makes it universal?

The play starts with a policeman shooting a peasant who is dying of thirst next to a dry fountain in a small town in “a tropical port in the Americas.” The wealthy tourists staying at the hotel are offended and demand his body be removed immediately. Ghana is a country with great extremes of wealth and poverty. I would say that we in the US are heading in this same direction. As the character Jacques Casanova says about the local government, “Well, I suspect it is really just a big corporation in which a few are stockholders and all the rest—petty wage slaves!” The hotel proprietor asks, “Does that strike you sir, as being at all unique?”
The main character, Kilroy, is an embodiment of “The American Dream”- a sailor, a boxer, and a dreamer. He is confused by his surroundings, but he tries hard to relate to those around him.

This production of Ten Blocks will be performed outdoors How will it work in spaces not traditionally used for theatre?

I am very interested in environmental staging, and I was intrigued when I learned this production was presented in marketplaces in Ghana. When I started to set up the residency, I looked for similar venues. I am very excited to see what kinds of audiences we will get at these performances.

Ten Blocks on the Camino Real will be performed at the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market on Sept. 13 at noon, the Diag on U-M Central Campus on Sept. 15 at noon, Ypsilanti Farmer’s Market Depot Town on Sept. 16 at 11am, and CMAP Detroit on Sept. 17 at 2pm. All performances are
free and open to the public.

For more info visit
LSA.UMICH.EDU/WORLD-PERFORMANCE.

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