‘The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: a tourist is an ugly human being.” So wrote the Antiguan-American writer Jamaica Kincaid in her 1988 polemical essay A Small Place. Her target was the wealthy western consumer travelling to the Caribbean island of her birth but she also took in former British colonial rule and corruption inside the Antiguan government.
This staging of Kincaid’s book is so faithful an adaptation that it performs the text in its original and entire form, spoken to the audience with no dialogue between actors. Director Anna Himali Howard underlines, rather than hides, the fact: the opening scene features an unnamed actor (Cherrelle Skeete) reading from the essay by torchlight. She puts the book away when a second actor (Nicola Alexis) joins her, but they narrate every word of the essay together.
Some of the best, most barbed parts satirise the spoiled tourists, who, like the sun-burned Americans travelling to Haiti in Roxane Gay’s short story collection, Ayiti, turn a blind eye to the realities of islander life and suck up the five-star luxury: “You emerge from customs into the hot, clean air: immediately you feel cleansed … When you sit down to eat your delicious meal, it’s better that you don’t know that most of what you are eating came off a plane from Miami.”
What might have felt like a lecture is animated by the actors’ delivery, which bring out the script’s spiked humour and its eloquent rage. Skeete speaks with a fierce energy and occasional impishness, while Alexis projects controlled anger.
Camilla Clarke’s set is designed as a travel centre or waiting room, incorporating – and implicating – the audience as the tourists to whom Kincaid’s diatribe is addressed.
Seating is divided into several sections with props strewn in between – hotel room TV sets, an office cabinet and footstool, clocks showing different time zones, a glass display of a museum bust and a mobile shelving unit for books that symbolises the island’s battered library.
It is all inventively done, with glints of humour (at one point, Skeete’s head appears inside the museum’s display cabinet, as if to suggest that the “exotic” indigenous islander has become part of the tourist’s experience). But the back-to-back seating arrangements for the audience and the lack of a focal point are occasionally discombobulating.
Johanne Jensen’s lighting dips occasionally to total darkness, until a lamp or a torch is suddenly switched on. It is atmospheric and hints at electricity blackouts for local islanders, though this is never spelled out.
The actors switch on an overhead projector and encourage us to imagine on its blank screen the scenes they describe. These include air-conditioned hotel rooms and perfect sea views alongside the island’s grubbier side – the library in disrepair since an earthquake, the broken hospital system and the exclusive members of the Mill Reef Club, where the only local, non-white faces are those of waiting staff.
Skeete and Alexis are almost constantly moving, but the circling and weaving comes to seem churning and repetitive. They walk around the audience, turn on lamps, stand behind a desk, carry books. Where the intention might have been to avoid a static performance, the physical drama could have gained power and coherence from more moments of stillness.
A Small Place is bold and enlivening polemical theatre nonetheless, and it is passionately performed, with political resonances around race, colonial legacy and blind consumerism that run deep.