Sutherland, Efua (1924–1996)

views updated

Sutherland, Efua (1924–1996)

Prominent Ghanaian poet, author, theater director and filmmaker who also held academic and government positions sponsoring the development of the arts in her newly independent country. Name variations: Efua Nyankoma; Efua Theodora Morgue; Efua Theodora Sutherland. Born on June 27, 1924, in Cape Coast, in the British colony of the Gold Coast; died on January 2, 1996; attended St. Monica's School and Training College, the Gold Coast; Homerton College, Cambridge University, B.A., and School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London; married William Sutherland, in 1954; children: Esi Reiter Sutherland; Muriel Amowi Sutherland; Ralph Gyan Sutherland.

Returned to the Gold Coast (1951); was a teacher at St. Monica's School (1951–54); after the Gold Coast became the independent state of Ghana, organized Ghana Society of Writers (1957); began publication of literary magazine Okyeame (Spokesman, 1959); founded Ghana Experimental Players (1958); founded Ghana Drama Studio (1961); appointed Research Fellow in Literature and Drama, University of Ghana (1963); made first visit to Atwia (1964); completed story house at village of Atwia (1966); founded Kusum Players (1968).

Major works:

(drama) Edufa (1962), Foriwa (1962), The Marriage of Anansewa (1975); (prose) The Roadmakers (1961), Playtime in Africa (1962), New Life at Kyerefaso (1964).

Efua Sutherland devoted her career to promoting African art forms. Along with her work as a teacher and radio broadcaster, this Ghanaian intellectual wrote short stories, plays, and poems; she also led the way in creating numerous organizations and projects to develop African writing and African theater. Sutherland wrote both in English and in Akan (or Twi), one of the languages of her African homeland. She was known primarily as a playwright, and her most significant works, notes critic J. Nkukaki Amankulor of the University of Nigeria, "show her development within the European dramatic tradition as well as her determination to create a new dramatic aesthetic … [for] a truly African theater." While some of her work was directed toward an adult audience, her other writings were intended for African children.

Using the traditional storytelling format by which African folklore has been transmitted, in her three major plays Sutherland worked to create appropriate dramatic forms for her newly independent country. Some critics see her writing as primarily didactic, aiming at teaching her audience lessons in both traditional morality as well as the skills to cope with a changing environment. Others note how Sutherland's dramas demonstrate her strong interest in exploring and criticizing the role of women in African society. William B. Branch, for example, claims that Sutherland is not "an authentic, dyed-in-the-wool, crusading feminist." But he goes on to insist that "there is nevertheless a sense of warning implicit in Sutherland's dramas … that there must be meaningful change in relationships between men and women on this planet, and soon." Gay Wilentz , a feminist critic, finds that Sutherland's dramas show the dominant role that women have played in handing down African traditions from generation to generation.

The future writer was born Efua Theodora on June 27, 1924, at Cape Coast, a coastal town in the British colony of the Gold Coast. Some sources give her family name as Morgue. Her parents were Christian and urbanized, but they were members of the Fante tribe of the Akan language group. Sutherland's first name, Efua, was the customary name for female children of the tribe born on a Friday. She received two additional names that symbolized her dual heritage. In accordance with Fante custom, eight days after her birth she was given a name taken from one of her ancestors, Nyankoma. At her Christian baptism, she was given the name Theodora. Both mean "Gift of God."

The young girl obtained her education on two continents. After graduating from St. Monica's School and Training College at Mampong in the Ashanti region of the Gold Coast, she continued her studies in England. One of the first African women to attend Cambridge University, she studied there at Homerton College and took a B.A. degree; she continued her education abroad at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. At age 27, she returned to Ghana to start a career in secondary education. She taught first at the Fijai Secondary School at Sekondi and subsequently at her alma mater, St. Monica's at Mampong. In 1954, the young teacher married William Sutherland, an African-American and an official of an international relief organization. The couple went on to create a family with three children: Esi Reiter, Muriel Amowi, and Ralph Gyan.

Sutherland's early years as a teacher coincided with dramatic events in her homeland. In 1957, Great Britain ended its century-old control over the Gold Coast, and the newly independent country took the name Ghana. It was the first of Africa's sub-Saharan states to see the end of European rule and to achieve independence. Although there were a number of urban centers along the coast such as Accra and Cape Coast, the vast majority of Ghana's population lived in rural villages in the interior.

Once she had settled back in Ghana, Sutherland took up the cause of promoting African literature in written form. This was a departure from the continent's tradition of maintaining cultural products in the form of oral works. In conformity with that tradition, even educated Africans tended to link written literature with Western forms and ideas. The absence of a compelling written literature reflecting their own heritage served to discourage most Africans from any extensive reading effort.

Sutherland took on the problem both as a writer and as an organizer. She began to write in 1951, later recalling that she became dissatisfied with the materials available for the first group of children she was assigned to teach. In 1957, Sutherland made another effort to remedy the situation by founding the Ghana Society of Writers. Progress came slowly, and her determination was renewed when, in 1958, an exhibit Sutherland put on showed the complete absence of such English-language works by Ghanaian authors. At that time, she commented to a friend, "When the first children's book by a Ghanaian is published I shall die happy." She put herself to the task and her own children's book, Playtime in Africa, appeared in 1962. "Dedicated to the Children of the New Africa," as she put it, the book was illustrated with 40 photographs by Willis E. Bell. It presented African children with pictures of their peers at play in a variety of outdoor settings.

As a literary pioneer, the young teacher struck off in an even more novel direction in developing a theatrical movement in her native country. While Ghana had a tradition of public storytelling and dramatic performances at festivals

and funerals, there was nothing on the order of formal theater. Sutherland changed that by sponsoring adult theatrical productions and also by creating a children's theater program. The government of Ghana provided some financial support for her endeavors, and she also received help from such sources as the Rockefeller Foundation. Thus, Sutherland was able to create a theatrical center, the Ghana Drama Studio, in the national capital at Accra. Its first full production studio, an outdoor auditorium, opened in 1961. Characteristically, Sutherland had studied the Ghanaian tradition of outdoor social occasions and storytelling and decided that the Drama Studio should continue along these lines.

In 1959, she and fellow members of the Ghana Society of Writers were aided by the Ministry of Information in creating a literary magazine. Entitled Okyeame (meaning a chief's official speaker), this publication was intended to promote creative writing among members of Ghana's population. Another step in Sutherland's career came in 1963 when she was appointed Research Fellow in Literature and Drama at the Institute of African Studies of the University of Ghana. In her new role, she was able to train young actors and playwrights. Moreover, in her official capacity, she toured many remote areas of the country in search of Ghanaian oral literature.

Sutherland applied her prodigious energies to the study of Ghanaian folklore. "I'm on a voyage of discovery," she said. "I'm discovering my own people." In Ghanaian society, funerals were the occasion for public entertainment to accompany the vigil for the deceased. She attended these and other traditional ceremonies. Sutherland's quest for folk tales led her to the small, impoverished Fante village of Atwia, with a population of 700, in the Central Region of Ghana. She stayed four months on her initial visit in 1964. The village was famous for its storytelling, but the visitor was particularly impressed by the community's determination to provide its children with an elementary education. Nonetheless, most of its youngsters departed for Ghana's cities once they reached their teenage years. With the aid of the village elders, Sutherland moved to revitalize the small community's cultural life, beginning with the construction of a village theater. Said Sutherland, "I have had a long-standing hunch that the educated African had better get with the uneducated communities which form the bulk of his society in every African country at present."

Sutherland contributed money from her research funds to buy building materials, and the villagers themselves provided the labor. Soon, emigrants from the village who had settled in urban Ghana returned to contribute their skills as masons and carpenters. During the construction, Sutherland brought University of Ghana students from the departments of literature and drama to the village for visits. The seminars in which they participated gave the villagers in this remote setting an indication of what the finished theater would add to their community. In June 1966, the community theater was completed. It received the Fante name Kodzidan (The Story House). An initial performance a month later attracted all the participants in the International Music Festival Conference then being held at Accra.

With Sutherland taking the lead, Atwia began an economic as well as a cultural revival. The exodus of teenagers from the village slowed as new developments such as a theater ensemble and a corn mill for processing grain made Atwia a lively center for the surrounding area. For Sutherland, the entire Atwia adventure was an important lesson for the urban inhabitants of Ghana and other parts of Africa. They could now see how to revitalize the uneducated communities around them.

In a 1968 interview, Sutherland reflected on her own need to learn about "hidden areas … important areas of Ghanaian life, which I just wasn't in touch with." Her forays into the countryside had given this city-bred intellectual a new perspective on her nation's life: "I've just made a very concentrated effort to make it untrue that I do not know my people and I know them now." That same year, Sutherland founded the Kusum Players (Kusum Agoromba). This group of professional actors with its home at the Ghana Drama Studio toured the country presenting plays to groups of various ages. Most of the plays it performed were by Sutherland and several were in the Akan language.

Sutherland responded with dismay to an interviewer's questions in 1972 as to whether "you are the pivot around which all the drama in Accra circulates." Nonetheless, she admitted to managing several plays at the Drama Studio, while also organizing poetry readings and editing Okyeame. At the same time, she remained active in promoting experimental village theaters. "I somehow get the energy to do it," she said. "I suppose it is a sense of joy that I have in doing it that keeps me going." She was the first well-known media personality in Ghana, working in both radio and television.

In that 1968 interview, Sutherland expressed her hope that her work would help spread English in Ghana. She regretted that Ghanaians "don't wear the language comfortably," and thus productions in Akan reached a much higher standard. Nonetheless, she looked forward to the day when Ghana would be a bilingual society.

Sutherland's own writing in Akan reached a high level of maturity by the early 1960s. In 1962, two important plays appeared. Edufa stressed social relations in African society, while Foriwa placed a greater emphasis on political developments. Some critics have noted incorrectly that the plays were written in English and misdate their appearance as occurring in 1967. In fact, the two received their debuts in 1962, almost certainly in Akan, and were first performed in English in 1967.

The somber work Edufa borrowed themes from Euripides' Alcestis to dramatize the story of a man facing oracles' predictions of his death. He responds to this crisis by trying to put his father in the path of destiny, but, by mistake, it is Edufa's wife who takes his place. Notwithstanding the European roots of the story, Sutherland drew on traditional African beliefs in the role of oracles to make the play meaningful to a Ghanaian audience. In her use of a chorus, she mingled African and European elements. The dramatic device came from the traditions of Greek drama, but, composed of village women, this element placed the drama within the environment of a typical African rural community.

Sutherland also made Edufa, the central male character of the play, into what Lloyd Brown calls a representative of "the new elite of educated and wealthy men who have adopted the worst features of Western culture." As Brown points out, Edufa is presented with an opportunity to save his wife by "joining the entire family … in a collective beseeching of the gods." But he is too selfish and too divorced from traditional African values "of family and religion" to take this path. On the other hand, his wife Ampoma displays an African tradition of sharing and self-sacrifice that her coldly materialistic and egotistic husband has abandoned. But, in Brown's view, Sutherland also uses Ampoma for the larger purpose of criticizing women's role in African society. In a key passage, Ampoma declares that women conceal and restrict their desires and expressions, "preventing the heart from beating out its greatness." At the same time, the presence of a secondary character, an alienated poet and intellectual named Senchi, reemphasizes the Westernization of African society and Sutherland's desire to incorporate that change into her work.

That same year, in the more political drama Foriwa, she presented a work with a very different tone. Here Sutherland investigated in charming fashion the problem of bringing new knowledge to an African community. This work drew more heavily than Edufa on what Brown calls "the indigenous forms and conventions of the dramatist's own culture." In the play, several characters join in a successful effort to revive and reinvigorate the traditional beliefs of an African village. A four-branched tree set in the midst of the village and devoted to the gods stands present throughout the play. It represents healthy continuity, and the ability to grow on the basis of a lengthy past. Similarly, the wandering young university graduate Labaran joins forces with the town's queen-mother and her daughter Foriwa to seize "a dormant vitality … waiting to be released from static and unproductive notions of tradition." By making two women into agents of change, Sutherland again presented a critique of the basic forms of African society.

In 1975, in what Amankulor calls "Sutherland's most valuable contribution to Ghanaian drama and theater," The Marriage of Anansewa, the playwright developed a new dramatic form that drew upon African traditions. As in Foriwa, the tone of the work is light-hearted and playful. The drama's action halts for a number of musical intervals in which the performers converse with the audience. These interludes create a community between the players and the observers, allowing for a running commentary about the action taking place on the stage. Such a dramatic format drew upon the "spider (Ananse) stories" of Ghanaian tradition.

At a time when traditional values and modern needs have come into conflict, she has helped Africans, literate and illiterate, adapt to change creatively, by giving them outlets for self-expression and also encouraging a deeper sense of community and purpose.

—Louise Crane

The play's plot tells how an African villager, Ananse, places his daughter before a number of suitors. Having drawn gifts from all, he must announce the girl's death to avoid the inevitable confrontation with a group of disappointed would-be sons-in-law. One suitor, however, insists on taking responsibility for the girl's funeral even though custom places no such burden on him. As a consequence, Ananse must arrange his daughter's miraculous return from the dead and her betrothal to this pillar of generosity. The play thus shows Sutherland's continuing interest in African traditions and the possibility of renewing them in a creative way. Meanwhile, the audience is presented with a positive view of the age-old ceremonies through which Ananse's daughter Anansewa is initiated into adulthood.

As her country's most renowned dramatist, Sutherland traveled abroad to spread word about her work, notably in the United States. In the 1980s, she served as chair of the Ghanaian National Commission on Education. In that capacity, Sutherland was an advocate for increased government expenditures on education, since, as she noted, "money cannot be used for anything better than to ensure that society is well founded on children who are the base."

Efua Sutherland died at the age of 71 on January 2, 1996. In her obituary in The Guardian, Margaret Busby observed that "she held a special place [in the life of her country] having been the dominant presence in theater there for more than three decades." Her government honored her by naming one of the capital city's parks the Efua Sutherland Children's Park.


Branch, William B., ed. Crosswinds: An Anthology of Black Dramatists in the Diaspora. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Brown, Lloyd W. Women Writers in Black Africa. West-port, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Crane, Louise. Ms. Africa: Profiles of Modern African Women. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott, 1973.

Fister, Barbara. Third World Women's Literatures: A Dictionary and Guide to Materials in English. West-port, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Jones, Eldred Durosimi, ed. Women in African Literature Today. London: James Curry, 1987.

McFarland, Daniel Miles. Historical Dictionary of Ghana. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1985.

Owomoyela, Oyekan, ed. A History of Twentieth-Century African Literatures. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

Pieterse, Cosmo, and Dennis Duerden, eds. African Writers Talking: A Collection of Radio Interviews. NY: Africana Publishing, 1972.

"Reaching Out to Young Africa," in The Guardian. January 27, 1996.

Serafin, Steven R., comp. and ed. Modern Black Writers. Supplement. NY: Continuum, 1995.

Wilentz, Gay. Binding Cultures: Black Women Writers in Africa and the Diaspora. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992.

suggested reading:

Holloway, Karla F.C. Moorings & Metaphors: Figures of Culture and Gender in Black Women's Literature. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Pellow, Deborah, and Naomi Chazan. Ghana: Coping with Uncertainty. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1986.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California

About this article

Sutherland, Efua (1924–1996)

Updated About content Print Article