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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Efua Theodora Sutherland (née Efua Theodora Morgue) 1924-1996


Ghanaian theatre pioneer, children's author ("Auntie Efua"), and dramatist, whose best-known works include Foriwa (1962), Edufa (1967), and The Marriage of Anansewa (1975). In 1960 Sutherland founded the Drama Studio in Accra, which became part of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana. Sutherland's plays were often based on African myths and legends, but she also used Western sources, such as Euripides and Lewis Carroll.

"I'm on a journey of discovery. I'm discovering my own people. I didn't grow up in rural Ghana - I grew up in Cape Coast with a Christian family. It's a fine family, but there are certain hidden areas of Ghanaian life - important areas of Ghanaian life, that I just wasn't in touch with; in the past four or five years I've made a very concentrated effort to make that untrue. And I feel I know my people now." (Efua Sutherland in Cultural Events in Africa, no. 42, 1968)

Efua Theodora Sutherland was born in Cape Coast region, which was then the British colony of Gold Coast. Her father, Harry Peter Morgue, was a teacher.  Harriet Efua Maria Parker, her mother, came from the royal families of Gomua Brofo and Anomabu; she died in lorry accident when Efua was just five months old. Efua was taken care of her grandmother, who earned her living as a baker.

After graduating from St. Monica's Training College at Asante Mampong, Sutherland worked as a teacher. In 1947 she went to England where she studied for a B.A. degree at Homerton College, Cambridge, and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Upon her return to home in 1951, Sutherland worked as a teacher in several schools, among others at St. Monica's Training College, before settling in Accra, the capital. In 1954 she married William Sutherland, an African American peace campaigner and pan-Africanist. They had three children. Sutherland assisted her husband in the establishment a high school, that eventually became Tsito Secondary School in the Volta region. The Sutherland's marriage did not last, but she remained loyal and generous to his family and friends, especially his sister Muriel Sutherland. 

During her theatrical career, Sutherland was the creative force behind several experimental drama groups and writers' workshops. In 1958 she opened the Experimental Theatre Players in Accra. Two years later, with funding from Ghana's Art Council and the Rockefeller Foundation in the U.S., it became the Ghana Drama Studio, and a courtyard theatre, with a covered stage on one side, was build for it. A few years later Sutherland designed another outdoor performance area for experiments. Television service began in 1966 and from November 1966 plays were produced regularly. This institution flourished until 1990, when the building was demolished to make way for a new National Theatre. An exact replica of the Drama Studio was built next to the Institute of African Studies at the University.

In addition, Sutherland was the founder of the Ghana Society of Writers, later the Writers' Workshop in the Institute of African Studies, and the creator of Kodzidan, a community theater place in Ekumfi-Atwian. "I started the Writers's Society [...] to get more people interested in writing, primarily for children," she said in an interview. The organization was supported by such authors as J.B. Danquah, J.H. Kwabena Nketia, and Michael Dei-Anang. (Nkyin-kyin: Essays on the Ghanaian Theatre by James Gibbs and James Morel Gibbs, 2009, p. 98) In 1968 she formed the Kusum Agoromba (Kusum Players), a touring theater group, which performed at schools, churches, and training colleges. Its name was Akan and meant "the right thing to do." Sutherland's Drama Studio was originally a workshop for children's writers, but soon it soon became a training ground for playwrights, and the essential vehicle for the creation of new theatre. In 1961 she co-founded the cultural journal Okeyame. Sutherland was also a central figure in establishing of Afram Publications Ghana in the early 1970s. 

In 1962 Sutherland joined the staff of the New School of Music and Drama, headed by the distinguished musicologist J.W.C. Nketia. She worked with the National Commission on Children and also was a consultant to the DuBois Center for African Culture, the former home of the black American scholar and Pan-Africanist W.E.B. DuBois (c. 1868-1963), who had moved in 1961 to Ghana. Her Ghana Drama Studio also collaborated with the Workers' Brigade Drama Group, founded by Félix Morrisseau-Leroy. When Ama Ata Aidoo studied drama at the University of Ghana in the early 1960s, her mentor was Sutherland. 

With Experimental Theatre Sutherland travelled around the country, performing on the streets of the newly independent Ghana. Under its first president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972), Ghana became a socialist state in 1964, but following a financial chaos, Nkrumah was deposed in 1966. From the colonial English-language traditions in theatre Sutherland turned to the popular village theatre based on oral storytelling, and emphasized the importance of performing in Ghanaian languages. With the means of drama, Sutherland could reach people who had problems with the written word. Theatre had not only an important role in educating and entertaining people. Through achievements in culture Ghana also gained attention and prestige on the international scene. The American television network ABC made a documentary film in 1967 on her Atwia Experimental Community Theatre Project.

As a writer, Surtherland published essays, articles, short stories, poems, non-fiction, and plays. Her plays for children, many of which remain still unpublished, include The Pineapple Child, Nyamekye, Tweedledum and Tweedledee (after Lewis Carroll), Ananse and the Dwarf Brigade, Wohyee Me Bo, and Children of the Man-Made Lake.  In the 1980s Sutherland served as advisor to the president of Ghana, Jerry Rawlings, who led a cop in 1981, and started economic reforms. Her proposal for a Pan-African cultural celebration, the PANAFEST, was adopted by the Ghanaian state. The movement sought to uplift and reunite African and diaspora peoples through the arts.

Sutherland retired from the University of Ghana in 1984. Her final years she devoted to the Ghana National Commission on Children. Sutherland died on January 2, 1996. "The poets said it once so well: You were Mother Courage with a Heart the size of  Love, large enough for your children's tears for your nation's fears. You were Foruwa the young gazelle who tip-toed into our dawn, rearranged the world you found, gave life a new meaning, disappeared before we could think of saying Thanks." ('Mother Courage' by Kofi Anyidoho, in FonTomFrom: Contemporary Ghanaian Literature, Theatre and Film, edited by Kofi Anyidoho and James Gibbs, 2000, p. 84)

Sutherland's first play Foriwa (1962), sub-titled "a story-telling drama", was written for performance "in a street in any of many small Ghanaian towns", in the spirit of national awakening and demonstrated the importance of self-help. A young university-educated stranger, Labaran, camps in Kyerefaso, a neglected town. Labaran is a Hausa from the northern part of the country. He wants to bring new hope to Kyerefaso and says: "I was impatient at the beginning; in haste. Seeing the raggedness of my people's homes, I was ashamed, even angry. I heard it screamed: Progress! Development! I wanted it far and everywhere." Foriwa is a beautiful girl, whose mother becomes Labaran's ally in building a bridge between traditions and progress. The marriage of Labaran and Foriwa also connects north and south and different ethnic groups. Foriwa was a dramatized version of Sutherland's short story 'New Life at Kyerefaso,' anthologized in Voices of Ghana. Edufa (1967) was based on Euripides's Alcestis. Edufa is a Western-educated modern man, who is obsessed with his own longevity. A diviner tells him that he can avert his death if he can find someone to take his place. Ampoma, his wife, promises that she would die for him unaware of Edufa's intentions. Ampoma accepts her approaching death, and expresses love for Edufa. The play was first produced in 1962 at the Drama studio. At the time its director was Joe Coleman de Graft (1924-1978).

Marriage for Anansewa told about a cunning and dishonest father, Ananse, the spider or trickster figure in Akan oral narratives. As a trickster Ananse can take different forms, and in the story he is an old man. Ananse tests the suitors of his daughter, Anansewa, who is a Western-educated urban woman. He tries to gain money by demanding a bride price and playing with the hopes of the four suitors,  four ethnic chiefs. At one point he tests them by  declaring his daughter being dead. Following the oral technique Sutherland used a storyteller who stood outside the action and mediated between the actors and the audience. With the actors, the audience could participate in singing or recounting mboguo, musical performances that comment on the story.

Some of Sutherland's writing for children was both in English and Akan. "I am anxious that children are started off bilingual in the schools," she once said. "This can't happen unless there is literature in support of it." Vulture! Vulture! (1968) and Tahinta (1968) were rhythm plays, in which one-line statements were commented by an unvarying chorus line. The Roadmakers (1961) and Playtime in Africa (1962), with photographs by Willis E. Bell, were also written for children. The Voice in the Forest, a book of fairy tales and folklore, was published in 1983.

For further reading: Nkyin-kyin: Essays on the Ghanaian Theatre by James Gibbs and James Morel Gibbs (2009); The Legay of Efua Sutherland: Pan African Cultural Activism, edited by Anne V. Adams and Esi Sutherland-Addy (2007);  'Translation and Transliteration in Efua Sutherland's "The Marriage of Anansewa"' by Kwawisi Tekpetey, in Obsidian, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2007); FonTomFrom: Contemporary Ghanaian Literature, Theatre and Film, edited by Kofi Anyidoho and James Gibbs (2000); 'Efua Theodora Sutherland (1924-1996)' by Adaku T. Ankumah, in Postcolonial African Writers, ed. by Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne (1998); Moorings and Metaphors by Karla F.C. Holloway (1992); Binding Cultures: Black Women Writers in Africa and the Diaspora by Gay Wilentz (1992); 'Storytelling as Experimental Drama: A Study of Efua Sutherland's The Marriage of Anansewa' by Austin O. Asagba, in Lore and Language 8.2. (1989); 'The Didactic Essence of Efua Sutherland's Plays' by Adetokunbo Pearce, in Women in African Literature Today 15 (1987); The Development of African Drama by Michael Etherton (1982); Women Writers in Black Africa by Lloyd W. Brown (1981); 'Parallelism versus Influence in African Literature: The Case of Efua Sutherland's Edufa' by Chinyere Okafor, in Kiabara 3.1. (1980)

Selected works:

  • The Roadmakers, 1961 (photographs by Willis E. Bell)
  • Foriwa, 1962
  • Playtime in Africa, 1962 (photograps by Willis E. Bell)
  • Edufa, 1967 (based on Euripides's Alcestis)
  • Odasani, 1967 (based on Everyman)
  • Vulture! Vulture! and Tahinta: Two Rhythm Plays, 1968
  • The Original Bob: The Story of Bob Johnson, Ghana's Ace Comedian, 1970
  • Anase and the Dwarf Brigade, 1971 (based on Lewis Carroll's Alice in the Wonderland)
  • Anansegoro: Story-telling Drama in Ghana, 1975
  • The Marriage of Anansewa, 1975
  • Efua Sutherland of Ghana, 1978 (recording)
  • The Voice in the Forest, 1983
  • The Marriage of Anansewa and Edufa, 1987
  • Children of the Man-Made Lake, 2000 (a play for children; in Matatu, Volume 21-22: Issue 1, 26 Apr 2000)

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