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Opinions of Thursday, 23 September 2010

Columnist: Awuni, Manasseh Azure

Can Efo Kodjo Mawugbe’s Vodoo Save the Dying National Theatre?

These days any young man in Accra who grabs a girl must do one thing to be considered “civilized.” That’s the latest fad in town. He ought to take her to Silverbird to see the latest movie and, perhaps, buy her pizza at one of the famous restaurants in town. Having done that, he scores high marks and the girl who’s been given this heavenly treat considers him the best thing ever to exist on this turbulent planet called earth.
I used to quarrel with some of my colleagues back in GIJ. I am not a movie fan and anyone who’s a kilometer close to me knows that instead, I worship the likes of Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Chukwuemeka Ike, the late Ferdinand Oyono and those in their category. I call them the wise men of Africa. I don’t begrudge anybody watching movies, but what I didn’t like was some of my mates’ tendency to hijack the lecture halls as though it was meant to review movies. Sometimes they sit kilometres apart but could not allow themselves to be outdone in the analyses so they had to shout.
“Oh now Ghana’s movie industry has really advanced,” one once said. I was tempted to ask what at all called for that high ranking because from the few I had watched [Not the Agya Koo’s movies that are shown on Accra-Kumasi and Accra-Tamale buses], I could tell the end from the very first scene.
“If it is romance, it is romance. Everything is fiiili fiiili. It isn’t like those days when they used to do just anything,” was how he answered my question. I don’t dispute the fact that there is one in every fifty Ghanaian movies which has a well-organised plot and theme relevant to the society of its primary audience. But if one wants to whet one’s pornographic appetite, must one buy such movies? Is the quality of a movie determined by the amount of porn in it?
Don’t mistake me for someone who hates theatre. [I’ll come to that shortly.] Theatre has been as old man’s existence and I don’t foresee us doing without it as a nation. But the mild pornography and foreign movies that are rarely useful to our socio-cultural context must certainly not be the basis of our judgment if we’re to determine how far we have come with our theatre industry. So if [or rather when, for it will happen] the boy from Bongo grabs his catch, I will not take her to Silverbird. Instead, we’ll most of the time head for the National Theatre. And thanks to Uncle Ebo Whyte with his Roverman Production and Efo Kodjo Mawugbe, the literary voodoo man, we shall always walk out after reaching the orgasm of our enjoyment. I mean literary orgasm.
The first time I watched Efo Kodjo Mawugbe’s play was somewhere in 2008. That was his play, Ananse Kwaku Ananse. I was then with a certain TV station as an intern and I was assigned to cover that barren late night assignment. “Barren” because it was “soliless” and every assignment without “soli” is bound to raise hackles among the news crew, especially when it is a late night’s assignment. And in my case it was not different. The original camera man had bolted and someone else had been re-assigned. But he would not go without hissing and cursing bitterly.
“Like ebi soli assignment or travel opportunity, dem go ask you say when you come for this work. But this one wey notin dey inside, dey go run make someone go,” he began and went ahead to vent his spleen on his victim. But I didn’t complain. As someone who was still in school, my bye line was enough to offset all frustrations I would face even if I had to find my way home after the assignment. A call from a friend screaming, “I’ve seen your story,” then was like winning a lottery. What is more, I am an ardent fan of theatre and that’s how come I volunteered at the editorial meeting that morning to cover that story.
Back in Krachi Senior High School [the school I’ll always be proud of] my plays, Land Litigation and Aborted Expectations won us first positions in our Zone. The third one, Nation Wreckers, had to be acted on non-scoring basis in Hohoe at the 2004 Volta Regional Student Drama Festival [STUDRAFEST 2004] held at St. Theresa’s College of Education. It was due to negligence on the part of our organizers. We would not have won the first position anyway. Mawuli School had a well-produced play with all the effects and they won deservingly. I was also a founding member of the Kete-Krachi Theatre Company in 2005. Mr. William Addo, the Volta Regional Director of the Centre for National Culture, who was coming to inaugurate the Company was involved in accident when he was almost in town. That notwithstanding, the group paid him a visit at the District Assembly Guest House where a poem written by me was recited to him. He liked it and praised me for it. He may have forgotten but I will never forget it. It was the first time I had come face-to-face with a TV personality and his praise, to me, was like an endorsement from God.
So If I say I like theatre, it is no joke. And my GIJ colleagues who always thought I was a boring puritan were not fair to me. I only condemn what has become a misplaced affection for the kind of theatre that is sometimes not useful to us. But, hey, the world they say is a global village. But try getting an American visa.
So on this day, I actually lobbied to cover that assignment so I could also see Efo Kodjo Mawugbe’s play, which he had talked about on GTV’s Breakfast Show. But the camera man who had been so mad soon forgot about his anger when the play started. It was a play of indescribable humour woven with wisdom that mocked the foolishness of our so-called modern world. Later when a driver was sent to pick the crew, for it was getting too late, it took us a hell of time to convince this camera man to abandon the rest of the play so that we could go. And that explains how spellbinding the performance was.
I was therefore not shocked when Efo Kodjo Mawugbe was adjudged winner of the BBC and British Council’s International Radio Playwriting Competition with his play, Prison Graduates. When two of my friends in GIJ and I left campus for the National Theatre to watch Efo’s latest play, “Cindarama: Africa’s Cinderella” some of our friends thought it was abnormal. Frank Coffie, Kwabena Adu Gyamfi and I were among the GIJ students who still went to campus after our last exam to battle with our thesis. And when it was time for the World Cup matches, we thronged the security post to view the match, analyse and argue. If there is one gift of the Holy Spirit (or rather evil spirit, I’m not quite sure) which has lavished liberally on GIJ students, I think it is the gift of talking. But on this day, when it was nearing 6pm and we were heading for the National Theatre one evening, Isaac Odei Asiedu, GIJ’s indefatigable Chief Justice said it was abnormal for “boys ignore such a crucial football match” to watch play.
But to us, it was worth it. After the play, the three of us spent over thirty minutes outside the National Theatre doing what children do after watching the “Ninja,” “Last Killer” or “Blow Man.” That character! This scene! The “gyimigyimi” stagehand who combined his role with acting! Kwabena Adu Gyamfi ended by saying no matter what he would do in future; he would surely attend the School of Performing Arts to make his dream come true. That passion was ignited by that evening’s performance.
Directed by Francesca Quartey, Cindarama has a very versatile cast who sing like choristers and when comes to dancing, they can compete favourably with any dance company anywhere. Though not many, they are able to change roles so effectively and the lighting and sound effects make the production a world class one. The Cinderella theme has been domesticated like how Ola Rotimi Africanized Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and the Ghanaian culture is woven intrinsically into the otherwise global theme of the original play. What is more, Cindarama is a play that must be shown to children and the youth, especially those in rural areas, who are still made to believe that their rights end where their parents and communities think it must end. In fact, it is a play for anybody who has ears and eyes of compelling theatrical works.
But most of the seats in the National Theatre that night were empty.
Not very long afterwards, I heard that Efo Kodjo Mawugbe had been appointed the Acting Executive Director of the National Theatre of Ghana. I was overjoyed, but not for long. That was when the enormity of his task dawned on me like day. Yes! Leadership is about creativity and our woes as a continent is that we have daft-headed men and women occupying sensitive position.
But can Efo use his enormous talent to transform the Ghanaian theatre, which is at the brink of collapse? This was the first thought that came to mind. Theatre is a powerful educational tool and since the collapse of the popular Key soap Concert Party of yesteryears, the National Theatre seems to have outlived its usefulness. But with Efo’s literary prowess and equally spellbinding productions from Uncle Ebo Whyte, I believe that with the right kind of management and marketing, the theatre industry in Ghana can regain its glory. I don’t know about the current arrangements but if Efo will succeed, he should bring the likes of Uncle Ebo Whyte and other producers and playwrights in board. They must be seen as partners and not competitors, for Efo is playwright of his own class.
There are thousands of people who are disenchanted with our mediocre movie industry. But the hustle and bustle of city life must be accompanied by appropriate stress releasers and powerful literary works whose philosophical undertones must set its audience thinking for days. And this, drama can do.
Congratulation, Efo Kodjo Mawugbe, on your appointment! But the boy from Albert Abongo’s Bongo wants to know whether your literary voodoo can revive our dying National Theatre.

Credit: Manasseh Azure Awuni [www.maxighana.com] Email: azureachebe2@yahoo.com The writer is a freelance journalist based in Accra. To read more of his writings, visit www.maxighana.com