Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 206-207
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Ghana's Concert Party Theatre
Ghana's Concert Party Theatre, by Catherine M. Cole. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001. 196 pp. ISBN 0-253-21436-X paper.
Ghana Concert Party Theatre is an enlightening book once it focuses on theater history and the social contexts. Catherine M. Cole, alas, begins with the now mandatory academic discussion of postcolonial theory, situating and justifying herself, discussion of the hegemony of European epistemologies in African studies, and an obsessive concern with African [End Page 206] performers wearing Black Face. After such an unpromising beginning the book gets much better as Cole traces the history of Concert Party Theatre in Ghana from its predecessors until the 1960s.
The parties have their origins in the Westernizing coastal elite appropriating and adapting European theater to Ghanaian interests. While the shows increasingly incorporated local languages, songs, and other Ghanaian materials, as its audience changed from the elite to the workers, they continued to reflect the conflicts and tensions of modernization. During the late nineteenth century there were already performances modeled on European spectacle in which whites were satirized as part of the show. Similar tensions can be found in Kobina Sekyi's 1915 play The Blinkards, which shows how "the ideology of colonialism became popularly accessible to Africans in the coastal cities of colonial Ghana through embodied manners of dress, eating, and speech" (77).
While their parents came from the villages seeking better opportunities within the cash economy of the coast, the pioneer performers were raised in southern Ghanaian cities. They were part of the new social groups created in the primary schools where they studied to Standard VII. What began as Empire Day variety shows by schoolchildren became a new form of professional theater when some of the young men realized that they could earn more by touring with such shows than working as clerks. They mixed English with songs and dialogues in Fante and traditional materials; Akan tales were transformed beyond recognition. They added an organist and trap drummer and took the shows to the workers and agricultural laborers outside the cities. The formative years were from the late nineteen-twenties until the mid-forties. Three main character types were someone who supposedly knows English but does not, a semiliterate house boy who outwits him, and a lady who imitates Western ways. Many of the shows of the '30s and '40s drew their plots from American films and made use of popular American songs and such dance steps as the waltz and fox-trot.
The cities at first provided the social mixture and had the money for new entertainments. Soon the mines became a good market, especially after the mining companies realized that the shows were a way of keeping their workers' leisure time under control. During the war years the army also employed concert parties to entertain Africans being trained as soldiers in the Gold Coast. The money economy had developed a transportation system, expanded during the war, used by the traveling shows. Increasingly the parties were like magazines, mixing the latest fashions with comments upon recent events and such continuing problems as inheritance disputes and conflicts between wives. Until the late 1950s all parts were performed by men. During the 1950s High-Life bands began to perform Concert Party material and expanded the plots to include more characters, portray social problems, and add variety. The 1960s favored traditional rural over urban values while showing the latest urban lifestyles.
Bruce King specializes in Commonwealth literature as well as music.