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EFUA SUTHERLAND

"I dedicate my work in this book to my late sister Efua Sutherland and all the children of Ghana who were her children too" reads the dedication of Maya Angelou's delightful 1996 children's book, Kofi and His Magic. Angelou wrote about Sutherland in her 1986 book about the relationship of African-Americans to Africa, All God's Children Need Travelling Shoes. Sutherland and Angelou shared deep convictions about the central role literature plays in life, and the responsibilities of the writer to society.

Efua Sutherland was a playwright, theater director, teacher, poet, founder of numerous theater and writing programs, and an active proponent of the arts in her country. She worked extensively with children and considered them "our sacred responsibility" and the key to the future. She gained renown for her efforts to synthesize traditional Ghanaian theatrical elements with their modern—and often foreign—counterparts. What resulted was a distinctive form of theater which spoke to audiences of diverse backgrounds, crossing educational and cultural boundaries and breaking language barriers.

She was born on July 27, 1924 into a Christian Akan family in Cape Coast, Southern Ghana. Her formal education began at St. Monica's School and Teacher Training College in Cape Coast, and continued at Homerton College, Cambridge, and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. From 1951 through 1954 she was a schoolteacher in Ghana. In 1954 she married African-American William Sutherland, and together they formed a school in the Trans-Volta Region and a theater in the Central Region of Ghana. The entry on Sutherland in Contemporary Dramatists notes that she may have thought her work as a theater founder more valuable than her work as a playwright, since a number of her plays have never been published. No matter how she ranked the importance of her many accomplishments, this much is clear: for Sutherland, theater performed a social role that went far beyond—yet did not compromise—entertainment.

Ghana won its independence in 1957, the first black African country to do so. Sutherland's ideals about the role of theater seemed to mesh with the hopes and ideals of the new republic, and she found a friend and ally in President Kwame Nkrumah. In All God's Children Need Travelling Shoes, Maya Angelou recalls her encounter with the grande dame of Ghanaian theater: "She knew the president and called him familiarly 'Kwame.' She said, 'Kwame has said that Ghana must use its own legends to heal itself. I have written the old tales in new ways to teach the children that their history is rich and noble.'" Theater was education, it was pride, it was a national anthem written in past and present rhythms with new lyrics. Theater was dynamic hope, a celebration of independence, and a way of building a path toward the brightest possible future. Sutherland's theater used "the old tales," the folklore, songs and music, and various performance modes of Ghana "in new ways" which are still sensitive to today's problems.

Although sources disagree on the exact date, it seems that Sutherland founded the Ghana Drama Studio in the same year as independence, 1957. It was created to provide an opportunity for experimentation in drama and to develop writers. The Studio flourished until 1990, when it was torn down to make way for a new National Theatre. A replica was then built next to the Institute of African Studies at the university in Accra to honor Sutherland's seminal role in the development of African theater. The Drama Studio was just the beginning. With the musician J. K. Nketia, she helped establish the School of Music and Drama at the University of Ghana in Legon. She also founded the Experimental Theatre Players, the Children's Drama Project, the Ghana Society of Writers, and the cultural journal Okyeame (Okyeame is the name given to a chief's official spokesperson). In 1968, Sutherland began still another experimental group, the Kusum Agoruma Players (the name is Akan for "the right thing to do"). The Players' first performance was in the Akan language. This helped them to reach a new audience and to find new performers. However, Sutherland's ultimate goal was to move towards bilingual theater, and eventually, to a bilingual Ghana. This hope was revealed when she told an interviewer, "I am anxious that children are started off bilingually in the schools. This can't happen unless there is literature in support of it." Consequently, Sutherland set out to create a literature for her people as well.

Her efforts to educate the young did not stop at literature. Children's projects and plays, published and unpublished, constitute a major part of her work. She wrote plays based on folktales, such as Ananse and the Dwarf Brigade, to educate, promote culture, and instill pride. Another type of children's play is Tweedledee and Tweedledum, which she wrote to help young students understand Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. In fact, Sutherland wrote plays to appeal to all kinds of audiences, young and old, urban and rural. She even produced plays to be performed directly in the streets, and took her productions to places like the mines, where this type of theater was rarely seen.

She was a poet as well as a playwright. Like her plays, her poems intertwine old and new. Many of her poems seem to reach across time to bring the past into focus in the present. For example, in "Once Upon a Time," she writes: "If it's of man we speak/Then once upon a time is still our time;/There lived a man, a man who lives…" Efua Sutherland looked back in order to look forward. She was deeply committed to creating a traditional literature that would appeal to people of all ages and classes. Always responsible to the larger community, she embodies the words she repeated in several works: "Our fathers found for us the paths. We are the roadmakers. They bought for us the land with their blood. We shall build it with our strength. We shall create it with our minds."

Things to do to celebrate Black History Month

  1. Learn about a famous African person and write a short biography.
  2. Read a book about Africa or one written by an African writer and write a review of it.
  3. It has been said that "studying minority groups like the Masai to get an idea of Africa is like studying the Amish to get an idea of the United States." Assess this statement.
  4. In 1996, one American student reported that the song being played over and over in clubs in Burkina Faso was Coolio's recording of "Gangsta's Paradise." Do you find this surprising? Why or why not? Listen to some African music.
  5. Discuss: How well do you think Black History Month is reported in the media? Is there enough coverage? What kind of information is presented? What information should the public be given to help them understand Black History Month better?
  6. Read a poem by Efua Sutherland. You can find "New Life at Kyerefaso," one of her most famous verses, in the book African Treasury, edited by Langston Hughes.