In the tradition of the iconic Efua Sutherland
After reading Ama Ata Aidoo’s plays, I developed a curious appetite to meet the author in person. And it happened, a few years ago! As I recall, it was at a program to honour her – I believe – at the Accra International Conference Center or so. Seeing her for the first time, coming down the aisle aided by a walking stick, I reached out in her direction and escorted her to the front row. We sat together through the event – talking, and taking pictures on her Notepad. She was lively, discerning, and full of fun as she spoke in rich Fanti metaphors.
One day, about to redeem an open invitation to visit her at home in Tema, I called to check on her availability. Having tried in vain to reach her by phone that time, I sent a text: “Good afternoon Auntie Ama. Tried to reach you. Please call.”
She replied through a text, signed, “AAA”: “Anis, great hearing from you, although … Right now still sitting in the plane waiting for the wheelchair people to come to disembark me.”
The Dilemma of a Ghost
Before meeting her in the flesh, I had once called Prof Kwabena Nketia to ask about the play, The Dilemma of a Ghost. It had premiered at the Commonwealth Amphitheatre at the University of Ghana, in 1964, while she was a student there. Enthused by the memory of that nostalgic event, Prof Nketia recalled, “My own children performed in the play: Akosua was eleven, and her brother, Kwabena, was about ten.”
Aidoo cut her literary teeth in the world of drama using a narrative technique that embraced prose for the bigger story; the supporting subtleties and nuances were laced in poetry. The Dilemma of a Ghost portrayed the clash between native Gold Coast culture and western values. The play explored the conflicted environment of an African husband and an African-American wife. The dialogue in the following scene is worth showcasing:
“ESI: [Addressing ATO] Is it true that your wife has thrown away the snails I bought?
ATO: Who informed you?
ESI: That is not important, but is it true?
ATO: [Defensively] She does not know how to eat them … and …
ESI: And what, my son? Do you not know how to eat them now? What kind of man are you growing into? Are your wife’s taboos yours? Rather your taboos should be hers.”
Aidoo got the gist for the play, she said, while listening to a children’s playsong in Takoradi (Western Region) where she grew up. The song lent itself to many promising adaptations; but she felt impelled, particularly, to enter an arena where angels feared to tread. There was something of value she really wanted to say, and it was worth the effort in walking straight through the uncomfortable truth of Africa’s complicity in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Aidoo was possibly energized by Ghana’s iconic playwright and poet, Efua Sutherland (1924 – 1996), also a Fante (from the Central region). In 1960 Sutherland founded the Drama Studio in Accra; it later evolved into a lively part of the Institute of African Studies when she joined the staff of the new School of Music and Drama, Legon, headed by the world renowned ethnomusicologist, Prof Nketia.
Between Sutherland and Aidoo, the University of Ghana was treated to original theatrical performances. The two amazing women brought to the stage women issues that had long been silenced in a male dominated world. Sutherland’s staged works included Foriwa (1962), Edufa (1967), The Marriage of Anansewa (1975), and Anansegoro, story-telling drama in Ghana. For children’s plays, she used a bilingual approach, supported by the relevant literature as in Vulture! Vulture! and Tahinta (1968). Both were composed as rhythm plays with various chorus lines.
With the formation of the Kusum Agoromba (Kusum Players) in 1968, Sutherland originated a touring group that performed at schools, churches, and training colleges in Ghana. Sutherland’s Drama Studio – initially intended for a workshop to groom children’s writers – soon morphed into a turf for sprucing playwrights and creating new theatre.
Returning from Stanford University in California to teach at the University of Cape Coast, Aidoo released her other play, Anowa, in 1970. The play was set in the late 19th century, and featured the beautiful strong willed Anowa who refuted tradition, but soon got entangled in a childless marriage to a rich man “she chose” herself, a man who was alleged to “trade” his manhood for wealth and slaves on “the whole Guinea coast”.
The poetry in the drama is splendid and captivating, as exemplified by this juicy inkling from an Old Man character erotically taunted by Anowa’s charm:
“Beautiful as Korado Ahima,
Someone’s – Thin-Thread.
A dainty little pot
And polished smooth
To set in a nobleman’s corner.”
The sense of Gold Coast and European colonial history in the drama is equally telling:
“It is now a little less than thirty years
When the lords of our Houses
Signed that piece of paper –
The Bond of 1844 they call it –
Binding us to the white men
Who came from beyond the horizon.”
With pan-African overtures the plot returns to the theme of Africa’s connivance in slavery, the “trade with the white men … buying men and women.”
The Zimbabwe International Book Fair listed Anowa as one of the best African literary works of the 20th century. Aidoo’s other books include Changes (published 1991, and winner of the 1992 Commonwealth Prize for Literature in Africa); and The Girl Who Can, and other Stories (1997).