A Military Curfew Drew The Curtain On Ghanaian Theater, But Now It's Back : Goats and Soda Back in the '80s, Ghanaian theater went dark under military curfew. Now, a dapper businessman-turned-playwright is leading an onstage revival — and doing it with a sense of humor.
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Years After Its Curfew Killed Theater, Ghana Gets A Second Act

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Years After Its Curfew Killed Theater, Ghana Gets A Second Act

Years After Its Curfew Killed Theater, Ghana Gets A Second Act

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we're going to head to West Africa, where Ghana is enjoying a revival of live theater. When the military took power and imposed a curfew in the 1980s, theaters went dark. By the time elected civilian government was restored in 1992, Ghanaians had lost the habit of going out to watch a play. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton found a businessman-turned-playwright who is luring his compatriots away from television, videos and tablets. Here's her report from the capital, Accra.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Unintelligible).

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: A buzz of excitement ripples through the audience perched on plush, red seats at Ghana's sleek, modern National Theater. The smartly dressed, mainly middle-class crowd nearly fills the Chinese-built auditorium. It's here that the plays of Ebo Whyte are performed every three months, and you can't miss him.

JAMES EBO WHYTE: My name is James Ebo Whyte, but everyone in Ghana calls me Uncle Ebo Whyte.

QUIST-ARCTON: The dynamic 70-year-old Ghanaian playwright is smallish and a natty dresser with a big smile. The one-time marketing executive regularly leaps onstage to talk to the audience, to apologize for a power cut or encourage theatergoers to buy tickets for his next play.

WHYTE: I've been writing, directing and producing a play every quarter for the last seven years.

QUIST-ARCTON: Ebo Whyte says Ghana once had a thriving and serious theater industry. Productions were hugely popular, mostly in English, with a smattering of pidgin, local English and the occasional indigenous language. Works by Ghanaian playwrights were regularly performed in this former British colony, as well as an established British repertoire. The vibrant Ghanaian theater tradition covered a wide range, from life in post-independence Africa to more traditional tales, says Ebo Whyte.

WHYTE: When I was growing up, theater was very big. I remember the drama studio - there was a production there every weekend, but then came the curfew. That killed all night life.

QUIST-ARCTON: Whyte says after the curfew was lifted, other nightlife rebounded.

WHYTE: Night clubs came back. Discos came back. But theater did not come back because we had lost most of the human resource to the new emerging video film production market. So we didn't have the people in the theater anymore.

QUIST-ARCTON: To revive live theater, Whyte hit on a simple formula - a four-play-a-year subscription at a reasonable price - and voila - packed houses. Mind you, these aren't classics or heavy fair - no Chinua Achebe or Shakespeare. Whyte's plays are mostly lightweight entertainment with a message and a lot of music and dance thrown in.

WHYTE: Yes. When I say commercial theater, I'm talking about a theater that survives and is sustained without any grants, without any government supports. We go out there, and we sell our shows to corporate Ghana.

QUIST-ARCTON: Whyte sells advertising to cell phone networks, banks and other sponsors. His play this time is "Bananas And Groundnuts" - i.e., peanuts.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "BANANAS AND GROUNDNUTS")

NANA SAM ELLIOT-SACKEYFIO: (As Ade, singing) Today, I don't feel like doing anything.

ANDREW ADOTE: (As Abraham, singing) Today, I don't feel like doing anything.

ELLIOT-SACKEYFIO: (As Ade, singing) I just want to lay in my bed.

ADOTE: (As Abraham, singing) I just want to lay - then how will you make money?

(LAUGHTER)

QUIST-ARCTON: It's a comedy-cum-moralizing tale of good and almost evil - a young man and woman tripping along the path of courtship. Actor Andrew Adote plays Abraham, the male lead - the stiff, socially awkward and seemingly daft love interest of the slightly ditzy leading lady, Ade. Abraham has a number of ticks, including a hilarious laugh.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "BANANAS AND GROUNDNUTS")

ADOTE: (As Abraham, laughter).

(LAUGHTER)

ADOTE: (As Abraham, laughter).

QUIST-ARCTON: Adote has performed in most of Ebo Whyte's almost 30 plays.

ADOTE: Laughter is the vehicle with which we convey our messages.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "BANANAS AND GROUNDNUTS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Give me an A.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) A.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Give me a B.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) B.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Give me an A, B, R, A, H, A, M.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Go, Abraham.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Oh, I'm beginning to love...

QUIST-ARCTON: That's the scene where Abraham triumphs over his rival for Ade's affections. Leaving the theater, Elsbeth Sakyi and her 9-year-old daughter Angela are busy discussing "Bananas And Groundnuts." The mother also came to watch Whyte's previous play.

ELSBETH SAKYI: And I enjoyed myself so much. And I decided that no matter what, tonight I'm going to be at the show. And it was so wonderful and interesting. I bet you...

ANGELA: And great, too.

SAKYI: (Laughter) I bet you it's challenging. It's motivational. It's interesting, and you got to be here.

ANGELA: I was, like - when I grew up, like, I will be part of it.

QUIST-ARCTON: Leading man Andrew Adote says the quality of Ebo Whyte's theater is unmatched in Ghana today.

ADOTE: There are other playwrights and produces coming up, and it's very good for us.

QUIST-ARCTON: Because, says Adote, their success will be a sign of a real theater revival. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Accra.

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