Some authors never receive enough credit for their contributions to the world of letters. They invest their time in building an aesthetic, promoting a vision, and teaching others to carry forward with what they believe is true. Efua Sutherland is one such author.

Today, Ghanaian political rallies and festivals are held in Efua Sutherland Park. Her name can be found on street signs and her children and grandchildren are known as world-renowned artists and intellectuals. Sutherland has been primarily known as a cultural force, but not until recently has the author, who did not publish prolifically, been justly recognized for her work in the promotion and production of African literature. In FromTomFrom: Contemporary Ghanaian Theatre and Film, Kofi Anyidoho says, Sutherland…

…could have used her considerable talents and skills in the promotion of a spectacular individual career. Instead, she chose to share her gifts with society at large by investing her energies in the building of model programmes and institutions, and in the training of future generations.

Sutherland is best known as the mother of Ghanaian Theatre and, as a result, her written work has been overshadowed by her substantial institutional achievements.

Anyidoho continues in his assessment of Sutherland,

She is best known as a dramatist, but her work in this area was always informed by a compelling vision of a better society, and she chose appropriate cultural education as the best foundation on which such a society could be established.

Fortunately, a re-visioning of her published works and produced plays has emerged as critics appreciate more closely her technique of melding traditional Ghanaian (specifically Akan) storytelling with Greek tragedy in works that transgressed the lines of colonial programming as well as gender politics. Furthermore, in his work, Myths, Traditions and Mothers of the Nation, Tony Simones da Silva says,

Sutherland’s mark on the work of other Ghanaian writers such as Ama Ata Aidoo, Joe C. De Graft, and, indeed, Kofi Anyidoho himself, to mention but a few, now is widely acknowledged, not least by those authors themselves. Clearly, then, it is wise not to overdo this dearth of critical attention on Sutherland’s writing and work, not least because she is not alone here.

She was born Efua Theodora Morgue in Cape Coast, Ghana June 27, 1924 to Harry Peter Morgue and Harriet Efua Maria Parker. Both sides of her family were considered royals in Ghanaian society, but Efua was raised modestly as her mother died at 18 in a vehicle accident and her grandmother supported the family by working at a local bakery. So from the age of five months forward, Efua she was primarily cared for by her maternal grandmother, Araba Mansa.

Theodora Olivia Morgue, as Efua was then known, attended the Government Girls School and St. Monica’s, in Cape Coast. Sutherland proceeded through a colonial education after winning a scholarship to St. Monica’s Training College, an Anglican school based in Yorkshire, England. So thorough was Sutherland’s training at St. Monica’s, she fully intended on entering the nunnery until her grandmother intervened against it.

Sutherland began to teach at St. Monica’s at 18, and after five years, left for England to earn a Bachelor’s Degree at Homerton College, Cambridge University. She tacked on a year of education there in the School of Oriental and African studies, focusing on linguistics, African languages, and drama. Sutherland returned to Ghana and St. Monica’s and then moved on to Achimota School. In 1954, she married William Sutherland, a pan-Africanist American expat, who’d been working in the Volta Region in support of Kwame Nkrumah’s vision for Ghana. Efua and her husband joined forces to found the region’s Tsito Secondary School. During this period focused on education, she produced two pictorial essays, Playtime in Africa and The Roadmakers.

By mid-1963, Efua Sutherland had worked as an African Studies research associate and founded, along with Joe De Graft, one of her most enduring legacies: the Atwia Experimental Community Theatre Project. Atwia stands as the model for today’s often replicated Theatre for Development. This effort was recognized in 1967 in an ABC documentary, Araba: The Village Story.

Efua Sutherland left her mark on Ghanaian Theatre and Arts by building institutions and progressing standards. Among them:

  • Okyeame literary magazine
  • Anansegoro style drama (traditional story-telling drama with the trickster Ananse)
  • Ghana Drama Studio (a permanent practice studio [now Writers’ Workshop in the Institute of African Studies])
  • Kusum Agoramba Drama Studio (dedicated to performing in Akan throughout Ghana)
  • Workers’ Brigade Drama Group
  • Drama Studio Players

The Drama Studio produced a number of her plays, including the well-known Edufa in 1967.

Sutherland draws from Euripides’ Alcestis and blends it with Ghanaian music and oral traditions to focus on modern cultural conflict. Alcestis serves as an ironic draw for this play, which questions women’s and men’s roles in modern society and the extent to which women are bound to tradition. Critic Lloyd Brown ranks this play as a forerunner in Ghanaian women author’s emphasis on “the integral relationship between the conventions of sexual roleplaying and the conventions of dramatic role-playing.” He sees her drama, like that of her countrywoman, Ama Ata Aidoo, as one that questions and analyzes the meaning of tradition and women’s role in society.

Surrounded in her studio by other playwrights in training, Sutherland wrote the bulk of her work during this period. In 1968, she produced several works for children, including two animated rhythm plays, Vulture! Vulture! and Tahinta.

The drama opened to favorable reviews and led to Sutherland’s next major production, The Marriage of Anansewa: A Storytelling Drama, in 1975. Again, a combination of Athenian Drama and Ghanaian storytelling, this play achieves what Chikewenye Ogunyemi says, “comments on the present, showing that human nature has not changed; she is however, determined to change the inhuman situation in Ghana, and by extension, the African world.”

Extending her visionary work, Efua Sutherland helped to established Panafest in the mid-1980s, a festival designed to connect continental Africans with those of the diaspora.

Efua Sutherland died in Accra in 1996.

Bibliography

  • Edufa. Longman, 1967.
  • Foriwa: A Play in Three Acts. State Publishing Corporation, 1967.
  • Vulture! Vulture! and Tahina: Two Rhythm Plays. Ghana Publishing House, 1968.
  • Odasani. Anowuo Educational Publications, 1969.
  • The Original Bob: The Story of Bob Johnson, Ghana’s Ace Comedian, with Willis Bell. Anowuo Educational Publications, 1970.
  • Anansegoro: Story-Telling Drama in Ghana, Afram, 1975.
  • The Marriage of Anansewa. Longman, 1977.
  • The Voice in the Forest: A Tale from Ghana. Philomel Books, 1983.