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Boundary Crossings: the Creation of Modern Theater in Post-Colonial Ghana

Sarah Nooter

University of Chicago

Efua Sutherland is a singular figure in twentieth-century Ghanaian cultural history, responsible for the establishment of the Ghana Drama Studio, the Ghana Society of Writers, and the Ghana Experimental Theatre. Through her playwriting, work, and advocacy, she essentially established modern Ghanaian theater and the study of African performance at universities, and also was critical in the areas of child advocacy and play-based education, an effort that included the development of public playgrounds around the country (cf. Gibbs 2009, Adams and Sutherland-Addy, eds., 2007, and Gaines 2017).

This paper will focus on Sutherland’s canny uniting of African and Classical European performance traditions, with the result of her establishing a new, modern form of theater in the wake of Ghanaian independence. Toward this end, it will focus on her use of  Euripides’ Alcestis, as reflected in two of her plays: Edufa (1967), which is an adaptation of Alcestis, and Marriage of Anansewa (1975), a play steeped in Akan traditions of storytelling and “concert party theater” (a form of improvisational and musical theater that has prospered in Ghana since the early twentieth century). Both plays handle issues that are familiar from Alcestis: Marriage portrays an ambitious survivalist, willing to maneuver on the border between old traditions and new values, indigenous practice and European influence, as well as those between life and death, in order to prosper in the world as he reshapes it. Edufa offers a character of similar ambition but less success, showing how easily the elements of ambition in comedy become tragic. Both plays also foreground complex gender relations, featuring a male protagonist who toys with the sacrifice of a woman’s life to fulfill his ambitions.

On one hand, I will suggest that these two plays together can bring new insight to our understanding of Euripides’ Alcestis, a text that resists easy classification with its diverse generic elements (cf. Wetmore, 2002 and Goff 2016). Such insights apply to a number of themes in Alcestis: the undermining of aristocratic values, boundary crossing as a means of survival and ambition, and risk-taking (with a woman as collateral) by means of rising in class and status. On the other, I will explore how Sutherland’s literary acts of boundary crossing (including boundaries of class, mortality, gender, genre, influence, etc.) allowed her to cross and obliterate boundaries in establishing traditions and institutions that continue to thrive in Ghana more than two decades after her death.

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Indigenous Voices and Classical Literature

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