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Review of The Legacy of Efua Sutherland: Pan-African Cultural Activism


By Judith Greenwood

The Legacy of Efua Sutherland: Pan-African Cultural Activism. Eds Anne V. Adams and Esi Sutherland-Addy. Ayebia Clarke Publishing Ltd, Banbury, 2007. Pp. 271. ISBN 978-0-9547023-1-1 (pb) £16.99

All nations as they brave the tides of history need good navigators if they are not to founder, and Ghana was fortunate to have such a pilot in the theatre practitioner Efua Sutherland, who helped to steer its course culturally, socially and politically after it achieved independence in 1957. This collection of essays, timed to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of that event, has been brought together to demonstrate and celebrate the fact that the irresistible force which was Dr. Efua Theodora Sutherland seems never to have encountered an immovable object.

Efua Sutherland was born in Cape Coast, Ghana in 1924 and died in Accra in 1996. Educated in Ghana by Yorkshire nuns, who introduced her to literature and the performing arts, she went on to study at Homerton College Cambridge and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London before returning to the newly independent Ghana in 1957, where she set up the Ghana Writers Society “all of a sudden because I felt that a newly independent country needed a force of creative writers.” (Sutherland p.160)

It is evidence of her passion and energy that the word ‘sudden’ occurs so frequently in Sutherland’s interviews:

“Suddenly in 1951 I started…creative writing seriously”, (Sutherland p.161)

“I suddenly saw …[w]e needed a programme to develop playwriting and…that led to… the Ghana Experimental Theatre” (Sutherland p.161)

“The Drama Studio came as a sudden answer to a problem I had been having, starting the theatre programme.” (Sutherland p.162)

This was the Ghana Drama Studio, which she established first in an aluminium shed on the beach in Accra in 1958 until it moved to new premises in 1960 and celebrated with a production of Everyman attended by Kwame Nkrumah.

The social health of a nation can be measured by the value it places upon artistic energy and culture, in the widest sense of those words, and Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party, with its drive for reform from the very grass roots of society, was never going to restrict the country’s artists to the role of dissidents. But with Ghana’s freedom came the responsibility to answer the universal and eternal questions which must be addressed by every independent society: how should we educate our children, how can we build the future on the best of the past, and how do we live fulfilled lives in our communities? Efua’s answers were characteristically pragmatic. She set up the Children’s Drama Development Project and she became “the first Ghanaian writer to take a serious interest in writing for children … (and) who attempted to produce a book with an indigenous background for children in Ghana.” (Komasi p.69); she encouraged the government to set up the Ghanaian National Commission on Children and chaired it. She built stages, established acting companies and wrote plays to express by modern theatre means her “vision of the socially regenerative power of the traditional rituals” (Adams p. 112) which she shared with other African writers; she insisted that everyone’s talent should be exercised for the good of the whole of society, because “[w]hat we cannot buy is the spirit of originality and endeavour which makes a people dynamic and creative.” (Sutherland p.77). She shared Nkrumah’s belief in and vision for the integration of different ethnic groups on the continent, stating in her play Foriwa (1967) through the character Labaran, “Who is a stranger anywhere in these times in whose veins the blood of this land flows?”

The book is divided into three sections under the titles ‘Efua Sutherland’s Artistic Space’ (13 essays), ‘Efua Sutherland and Cultural Activism’ (4 essays and 2 personal interviews with Sutherland by Robert July and Ola Rotimi), ‘Reminiscences and Tributes’ (9 essays), and the student’s essential toolkit of a chronology, a bibliography and a biographical sketch. With contributions from theatre practitioners, playwrights, actors, musicians, writers, teachers, academics, architects and Sutherland’s family, the essays cover in fascinating, thorough and diverse detail the astonishing range of her artistic and political activities. Her plays, her writing for children and her storytelling initiatives are reviewed and analysed; her role in the creation of many of Ghana’s arts institutions is examined and then brought to life through interviews with Sutherland herself; essays by her contemporaries demonstrate how far-ranging was her influence in modern African theatre – Biodun Jeyifo states that “[t]he programme of experimental theatre which Efua Sutherland began in Accra between 1958 and 1961, and the Ghana Drama Studio which she built to house her experimental work are two of the most important ‘happenings’ in the creation of modern drama, not only in West Africa but in the entirety of the African continent” (p. 36), whilst Anne V. Adams asserts that “her work forms part of the foundation on which the contemporary production of written literature by Africans rests.” (p.105).

Sutherland’s leadership and activism, the social application of her drama work and her influence on the Diaspora are all discussed in analytical and descriptive essays, whilst memoirs and reminiscences bear testimony to her extraordinary generosity and skill in mentoring and nurturing talent. As the eponymous heroine says in Foriwa, “I want to be able to look up as I walk and see dignity in the place of my birth. All of us should want that.”

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 70 (2008), pp. 84-86]

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