When the military took power in Ghana, imposing a curfew from the early 1980s, theaters in the West African country went dark. By the time elected-civilian government was restored in 1992, many Ghanaians had lost the habit of going out to watch a play.
Now one man is luring his compatriots back to live shows — and away from TV and videos. His name is James Ebo Whyte — "but everyone in Ghana calls me 'Uncle' Ebo Whyte, because of the program I do on radio," he says.
You can't miss the nattily dressed playwright. At 70 years old, he's small, dynamic and fit with a big smile. The one-time businessman regularly leaps on stage to talk to the audience for whatever reason — whether to explain a cut to the power supply or to encourage the enthusiastic theatergoers to pick up his magazine and buy tickets for his next play.
"I've been writing, directing and producing a play every quarter for the last seven years, and this is my 28th play in seven years," Whyte says.
Once Ghana had a thriving and serious theater industry, he remembers.
"When I was growing up, theater was very big. I remember the Drama Studio and there was a production there every weekend. Arts Centre, it was quite vibrant there. And, of course, on campus at the University of Ghana, Legon, School of Performing Arts."
In Ghana, a former British colony, theaters staged mainly English plays, which were at times adapted for the local audience with the occasional pidgin English or smattering of an indigenous language thrown in.
In the '60s and '70s, stage productions were hugely popular. Works by Ghanaian playwrights such as Ama Ata Aidoo, Efua Sutherland and Joris Wartenberg — as well as an established British repertoire — were regularly performed. Ghanaian theater tradition covered a wide range, from life in post-independence Africa to traditional tales.
"But then came the curfew," he says. "That killed all nightlife." After the curfew was lifted, "nightclubs 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 production market. So we didn't have the theater anymore. Commercial theater was missing."
To revive live theater, Whyte hit on a simple formula — a four-play-a-year subscription at a reasonable price, with extra productions over the end-of-year holidays. And voila: The seats at the National Theater in Accra, Ghana's capital, were filled once a quarter. Then, the plays go on the road around the country.
But don't confuse these plays for Shakespeare or classics of Ghanaian drama. The new productions are lighter affairs with lots of music and dance — and a live band in an orchestra pit.
"I'm doing this as a business," Whyte says. "When I talk about commercial theater, I'm talking about a theater that survives and is sustained without any grant, without any government support. We go out there and we sell our shows to corporate Ghana."
Cellphone networks and banks are among the corporate sponsors of Whyte's theater productions. They are thanked in screened ad breaks before the shows, during the intermissions and after the performances end.
Raising The Curtain
Before a recent show — called Bananas and Groundnuts — a ripple of excitement runs through the audience. Perched on plush red seats at the sleek, modern National Theater, the smartly dressed middle- and working-class crowd consists mostly of young and middle-aged adults. The 1,500-seat theater — Ghana's premier auditorium, built by the Chinese — looks pretty much sold out.
Actor Andrew Adote plays Abraham, the male lead. A stiff, socially awkward and seemingly daft wannabe love interest of the leading lady, lawyer Ade, Adote's Abraham navigates a comedy-cum-moralizing tale of good and (almost) evil.
Adote, who has performed in most of Whyte's plays, says they always try to impart a message with the humor.
"Laughter is the vehicle with which we convey our messages, and there are a lot of values that Ghanaians, and anyone who comes to watch, would imbibe," he says. "So as a part of them leaving the theater with the laughter, we also try to leave them wanting to be better people."
Ebo Whyte's theater group has about 80 people, he says — including performers, ushers, front-of-house ticket sellers and the crew. He says he consults the players about which production to stage next, and cast members take turns with the heftier roles.
"I don't pick trained actors," Whyte says. "I pick people who have the interest and have the passion. And then I work on them."
Like lead actress, Nana Sam Elliott-Sackeyfio — a budding entrepreneur and drama teacher. She says she'd always been interested in performing, mainly dancing and singing, and was encouraged by her parents to pursue the arts. She returned to Ghana recently, after studying in Britain, and joined Whyte's group a year ago.
Elliott-Sackeyfio says, after an initial audition, she didn't realize she had been hired until she got a call from Whyte's team saying she should return for rehearsals for the next play.
"I couldn't believe it. He had cast me for the lead role," says Elliott-Sackeyfio. Then it dawned on her. "Pressure! I'd never acted on stage before." She says she thrives on such challenges. "He throws something at you and you have to bring something new and creative. So I'm never bored. So far, so good."
Leaving Ghana's National Theater, Elsbeth Sakyi and her 9-year-old daughter, Angela, are animated, deep in conversation about the play they've just seen. Sakyi had been to the previous play three months earlier.
"And I enjoyed myself so much that I promised I'm never going to miss Ebo Whyte's play the next time," Sakyi says. "I decided that, no matter what, tonight I'm going to be at the show. And it was so wonderful and interesting."
"And great, too!" her daughter chimes in.
Adote says that Ebo Whyte's theater is unmatched — but still, he'd welcome competition.
"There are other playwrights and producers coming up, and it's very good for us, because that is a true sign that theater is being revived," Adote says. "We should hear about other theater groups and Ghanaians going to those groups, as well. It's then that we can truly have competitors, because right now we don't."
Whyte is pleased that 60 percent of his audience comes back for at least a second play. It's a sign he sees as a real revival.