Stage plays as an art form have existed for centuries. From the theatre of Dionysus of Athens, to the Globe Theatre in the city of London, the theatre has been ever-present in the history of every civilization, and Africa was no different. Theatrical arts in Ghana have evolved from oral traditions and folklore manifestations to properly staging complex dramas. Let’s take a journey through the history of theatre in Ghana.
Ghana’s first forms of theatre productions
What started as a way of people enacting oral traditions with body movement and dialogue to better illustrate the stories told, slowly evolved into Ghana’s first form of stage drama.
In pre-colonial Ghana, most Ethnic groups, especially the Akan, held cultural celebrations marked with storytelling and enactment under the full moon. In such displays, reenactments of folk tales and past historical events, regarding ancestors to the younger and old generation alike, took place.
Such performances were infused with musical intermission (known as mboguo in Akan), poetry and of proverbial recitations reflecting the lessons learned from the stories to entertain as well as educate the young.
Those were days when electricity was nonexistent and the sense of community was strong. Over the years, following the arrival of western culture (colonization), these elements were evolved into themes, scripts, plots, diction, directors, actors, costumes, music and special effects.
Theatre in Ghana during colonial times
The colonial British masters of Gold Coast (Ghana’s former name), had the need to entertain themselves after a long day’s work. This led to them attempting to recreate and reenact stories from England for entertainment and comedy.
Before 1874, when Gold Coast officially became a colony of Great Britain, there were a myriad of missionary activities in the country with different catholic and protestant trying to convert the locals into their various faiths.
Acting out bible stories was one way they used in getting the message across. The first school was established in 1876 and thereafter, there was a proliferation of schools to educate both the children of the British, as well as those who were born from the union of the colonizers and the locals and subsequently the children of locals themselves.
Theatre was one of the subjects that was taught as part of the arts and some of these children who grew up took these into their communities.
Evolution of theatrical arts after independence
After Ghana’s independence in 1957, the newly appointed government, led by Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, sought to introduce a new form of theatre arts. One that displayed an independent Ghanaian identity, contrary to its predecessor which was heavily infused with western colonial elements and did not help promote Ghanaian culture.
In 1958, the Ghana Arts Council and the Rockefeller Foundation provided the necessary funding to set up ‘the Experimental Theatre Players’ spearheaded by Efua Sutherland and Joe Degraft.
Efua Sutherland believed in using theatre as a way of contacting and engaging with the greatest number of people possible. But also using drama as a tool for social education and change.
Performance of “Something”, at the Efua Sutherland Drama Studio.
The birth of “The Ghana Studio”
Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, who was impressed with Efua and her team’s work, then decided to increase the experimental players’ provisions and funding. He was clearly impressed with how Ghanaians reacted to stage plays and programs performed by the group.
Thus, he ordered the formation of the National Symphony Orchestra in 1959. He recognized the importance of engaging with people through theatre. In 1961 following its success, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah had the Experimental players endorsed and the project was renamed ‘The Ghana Studio’.
From the mid-1960s, after the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah, there was a growth stunt in the theatrical arts and the entertainment scene in Ghana. This was due mainly due to the political instability and frequent Coup D’états, which mostly brought the country in a state of emergency.
Construction of the National Theatre of Ghana
In 1992, after the return of democratic governance, the then President of Ghana Jerry John Rawlings ordered the construction of a National Theatre which would eventually replace the Ghana Studio.
However, while the National Theatre was under construction, the Ghana Studio was temporarily moved from its old grounds to the University of Legon. The National Theatre was designed to resemble sails being caught by the wind and propelling the affluence of Ghana theatre out into the world.
The work was funded by the Chinese Government both in terms of monetary and human resource. Thus, making the National Theatre China’s gift to Ghana and strengthening diplomatic ties between the two nations. This new studio spawned stage plays of other great playwrights including the likes of Ama Ataa Aidoo (Dilemma of a Ghost and Anowa) and Asiedu Yirenkyi (Kivulu, Dasebre: a play on African rituals) among others.
Following the commissioning of the newly built National Theatre, the Ghana Studio was officially rebranded to The National Theatre Company. The Newly built Theatre was to serve as the multi-functional venue for concerts, dance, drama and musical performances, screen plays, special events and exhibitions.
It also housed the three resident companies of the National Dance Company, The National Symphony Orchestra and the National Theatre Players. The Latter producing plays of famous new century playwrights like Efo Kwadwo Mawugbe (in The Chest of a woman), Latif Abubakar (Saints and Sinners), Uncle Ebo Whyte (Dear God Comma, Blackmail), Mohammed Ben Abdallah (the Slaves, the fall of Kumbi).
The appreciation for theatre in Ghana is still growing. Many more people are getting introduced to the modern theatre with all its lighting and special effects. This is also encouraging playwrights to write more intriguing stories which drive social change.
For more information on the National Theatre and its upcoming productions, make sure to check their official website.
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