Since jhr believes in the power of the media to change lives and aid development through awareness of human rights, while in Cape Coast, I decided to take a look at a particular medium that is often overlooked, theatre, to see how it has been contributing to Ghana’s development agenda.
Although performance has always been a part of African culture, especially here in Ghana, today’s theatre is focusing largely on contemporary issues even when performances retain traditional stylistic elements. I sat down with Kelvin and Maxwell, two students of the Theatre Department at the University of Cape Coast (UCC), to talk about the potential for theatre to create positive change both on campus and throughout the nation.
Kelvin, a directing major as well as the president of the Association of Students of Performing Arts, described two distinct programs at UCC. The first, Theatre for Development, focuses specifically on plays that educate audiences about social issues such as the transmission of HIV. The department’s coordinator touted the program for tackling controversial topics such as female genital mutilation. In this instance, students use theatre to explain the dangers and effects of the procedure and urge communities to stop the practice. “They look at the situation and then they act on it, be it political, [about] social life or cultural,” the coordinator said of the program’s students.
The second program, Theatre in Education, teaches both how to involve young school children in theatre as well as using theatre as an educational tool in their classrooms. As a final project, students go into junior high schools to involve the students in the creation of a play. Using both traditional and contemporary plays, young students learn about their culture as well as contemporary issues. These students are also empowered to speak out and have their voices heard, a useful skill for children growing up at a time when many traditional norms must be challenged in society.
UCC theatre students are also starting to reap the benefits of a theatrical education both on and off the stage. Employers in Ghana are beginning to hire theatre students for their inherent public relations skills. Many theatre students at UCC, where one can major in sound and lights, costuming and makeup, set design, production marketing and management, as well as acting, directing or playwriting, are finding jobs in Ghana’s quickly expanding television and film industries. The coordinator also said that banks are now some of the leading employers of theatre graduates because of their ability to effortlessly address large crowds of financial executives as well as their excellent stress management skills.
Kelvin knows all about the importance of stress management. As a final year directing student, he is about to be given only four weeks in which to produce a play. Not only does that require rehearsing a cast of anywhere from 5-25 members, coordinating costumes, lights and sound, but also fundraising any costs over the allotted 200 cedis (about $150) provided by the department. All of this is even more challenging when the play is an example of “total theatre”, the African productions that seamlessly blend theatre with music and dance.
A poster for a recent production of "Tartuffe" at UCC
Though Maxwell and Kelvin feel that the Ghanaian theatre scene is not as vibrant as it could be, a problem that the coordinator links to the current take-home culture in which it is easier to pop a Ghanaian DVD into a player at home than to go to the theatre for the evening, they recognize that society has a lot learn from the medium. The two recently acted in a radio play written by Efo Kwadjo Mawubge, the current director of the National Theatre and one of Maxwell’s favourite playwrights. The play, Aluta Continua, is about the National Service which every graduate of a tertiary institution must complete. For one year, graduates are placed in banks, local government offices and the like all over the country, but it is common practice for elite members of society to influence where their children are placed, often opting to keep them in Accra rather than sending them to the rural regions. This comedy, depicting a meddling minister trying to influence the placement of his son, explores the possibility of a National Service scheme where placement distribution is fair and equal.
The play Maxwell is currently working, “The Family Affair”, is a family drama about two sisters in a broken home. He wants to focus on issues of morality with play. “Most of Africa’s plays are very traditional, but the times are changing and it’s time for Africa to change. I want to write social plays for the new Africa, not the old,” he said. However, no matter how eager the playwright is to send a message, there still needs to be an audience. Passionate students like Kelvin and Maxwell are working hard to keep the spirit of theatre alive in Ghana. “I think that people here don’t know what good theatre can do,” said Maxwell. This is why they believe theatre for development is so important. It brings theatre to the doorstep of the people and spreads an important message along the way.