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Efo Kodjo Mawugbe Was Here…

Tue, 20 Sep 2011 Source: Okoampa-Ahoofe, Kwame

By Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr., Ph.D.

The title of this tribute recalls an annual ritual of graffiti signatures written on the rafters and ceilings of dormitories and classroom blocks while I was in middle and secondary school in Ghana. Oftentimes, the names were those of graduates who had gone on to explore other academic pastures and/or avenues. And they were, obviously, reminders to current pupils and students that others had once been where they now were; and also the fact that others were yet to come after the present occupants of those buildings and institutions.

It is on the preceding note, therefore, that I prefer not to envisage the recent untimely passing of Efo Kodjo Mawugbe, the great Ghanaian playwright and director of the Efua Sutherland National Theater, in terms of existential closure, or finality, but merely in terms of a corporeal of physical transition. For, the poet-playwright does not really die or cease to exist, even as a highly cultivated world has clearly witnessed in the case of the immortalized Mr. William Shakespeare. We simply withdraw backstage, and then inspire the corpus of our literary production to survive us.

The latter statement also reminds me of a perennial question that used to be associated with one of the Bard-of-Avon’s acclaimed masterpieces on the General Certificate of Examination (GCE) “Ordinary Level” examinations, formerly administered by Cambridge University and later by the West African Examinations Council (WAEC). The question was tersely worded as follows: “Julius Caesar dead is more powerful than Julius Caesar alive. Discuss.”

Here in the United States, such a question is more likely to be regarded as a “prompt,” since it is not directly followed by a question mark. For, Americans tend to be more pointedly specific in their use of the English language which, by the way, could be aptly said in our time to have become more Americanized than it is radically Anglicized. For instance, when an Englishman or woman asks for “a couple” of apples or bananas, he or she generally is understood to mean a few or several. An American, on the other hand, invariably and strictly means exactly two. For this reason, Americans have often erroneously tended to be described as a “literally minded” people. The reality, however, is that Americans are brutally specific about the meanings of what they say, imply and intend.

Anyway, the obvious thing that I want to say here is that with his physical removal from our midst at the quite youthful age of 57, Efo Kodjo Mawugbe, now officially represented by some nineteen dramatic pieces, has become an even more powerful playwright than ever before. I personally had the privilege to witness this man of remarkable presence perform at the Accra Arts Center nearly twenty-seven years ago, on the eve of my departure here in the United States, and vividly remember, in spite of the corrosive effects of time on the human memory bank, that it was nothing short of electrifying. And it would not, in any way, be a gross overstatement for any critic or student of postcolonial Ghanaian theater to call Mr. Mawugbe “The real, and true, father of participatory theater in Ghana,” Prof. Efua Sutherland, of course, being the uncontested mother of it all.

Needless to say, by the latter reference is squarely meant the fact that Efo Kodjo genuinely involved his audiences in most of his dramatic pieces. His play In the Chest of a Woman is likely to remain the greatest dramaturgical composition on any aspect of Asante royal history. He also had a quite uncanny flair for the use of language, the English language, in this particular instance.

I also had the privilege to engage Efo Kodjo in a brief but quite memorable conversation at the Arts Center one morning, several weeks before I emplaned for the United States. At the time, Ms. Sey was the director. I had gone to the Arts Center to audition for a poetic-performance spot on a short-lived program called “Tete Wo Bi” – viz., “ The Past Has Something Meaningful to Inform the Present.” Mr. Mawugbe was on a brief stopover. He appeared to have been recently posted to one of the regional cultural centers. I overheard somebody call out his name, “Efo Kodjo!” and quickly rose up to introduce myself as the friend of his younger brother, whose name I cannot readily remember now, and whom I had briefly coached for the GCE “O”-Level literature examination, together with several other students, at “Tech-Sec” or the secondary school located on the campus of the now-Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, near the KNUST bookstore.

I darn well knew that a glaring dialogical non-starter would be to say, for instance, that I had heard so much about him. For by 1985, or thereabouts, Efo Kodjo had virtually become a household name. Instead, I found myself asking: “I hear you have met Mr. Wole Soyinka. Tell me, how do you generally find him?” Efo Kodjo smilingly confirmed to me that he had, indeed, met the renowned Nigerian poet-playwright and educator and found him to be rather erudite and a wit. I cannot recall what else transpired, but I vividly remember his generous encouragement of my then-fledgling literary efforts; I had already appeared a couple of times on “Variety Ahoy!” weekly hosted on radio by Mr. Godwin Aenorgbor and “Solid Black,” also hosted on GBC-2 by Mr. Carl Agyeman-Bannerman. I would shortly, thereafter, be featured on television by Mr. Avenorgbor, with the now-late baritone gospel singer Mr. Ola Williams as the main attraction.

*Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr., Ph.D., is Associate Professor of English, Journalism and Creative Writing at Nassau Community College of the State University of New York, Garden City. He is Director of The Sintim-Aboagye Center for Politics and Culture and author of “Ghanaian Politics Today” (Lulu.com, 2008). E-mail: okoampaahoofe@optimum.net.

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Columnist: Okoampa-Ahoofe, Kwame