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African creativity evolved from the collective to the individual, exploring the dynamic between individuals and their societies. With the emergence of written drama, theatre transitioned from sacred spaces to public venues. Ecole Normale William Ponty and Herbert Isaac Ernest Dhlomo (1903 – 1956), a South African poet and playwright, stand out in the early history of African drama in both English and French. The former was a government teachers’ school situated in St. Louis, Senegal, attracting students from various African regions, including French West Africa, French Equatorial Africa, Togo, and Cameroon. In the 1930s, as colonial education took root, students began crafting plays showcased annually. Many focused on the beliefs and customs of the Senegalese people. The French colonialists closely monitored these plays to prevent any criticism of the French government and its assimilation policy. The inaugural African play in French emerged from Dahomean students in 1932-1933, titled 'La Derniereentrevue de Behanzinet de Bayol' or 'L’Entrevue de Samoryet du Caitaine Peroz.'

The play depicted the encounter between the independent 19th-century Dahomean king, Behanzin, and a French colonialist seeking to annex the African monarch's territory. Consistent with the French colonialists' perspective, Africans and their rulers were portrayed as unintelligent and submissive. Despite these views, Ecole Normale William Ponty's production of plays eventually contributed to the development of Francophone theatre, leading to the establishment of numerous cinemas and public theatres over many years. Ironically, it was under the policies of French Governor-General Bernard Cornut-Gentille, overseeing French colonies in West Africa from 1951 to 1956, that theatre experienced significant growth. This expansion occurred through the establishment of over a hundred cultural centers in the French Protectorate in West Africa. By this time, Ecole Normale William Ponty had ceased producing plays, shifting its focus entirely to academic matters.

Herbert Isaac Ernest Dhlomo, recognized as one of the founding fathers of South African literature in English, co-founded the Bantu Dramatic Society in 1932 with his brother. In 1935, he published his first play, "The Girl who Killed to Save," considered the inaugural African play in English. Rooted in tradition and history, the play recounts the Xhosa people's cattle killing in 1857. Initially supportive of embracing aspects of the colonialists' lifestyle, including formal education, Christianity, and capitalism, Dhlomo later took a different stance in his play "Cetshwayo." Here, he criticized colonial policies and the frustrations of educated South Africans viewed as traitors.

Set in the 1950s, "Cetshwayo" centers around the historical South African warrior Cetshwayo, who not only defeats his brother, Mbuyazi, in a succession battle but also faces a Christian king and his rival brother's ally, Shepstone. The play unfolds with strategic moves among the characters, leading to Cetshwayo eventually conceding to Shepstone. Throughout, Dhlomo uses the play as a platform to express his views on the conflict between 'contemporary' white colonial Christians and 'traditional' black Africans.

In a dialogue between Shepstone and his assistant, Park, the playwright critiques colonial policies that undermine the dignity of their African subjects.

PARK: It seems tome, Sir, your policy

seeks to create two different civilisations

and two conflicting states in one country at

one and the sametime …

Human influences, feelings, thoughts and

actions seep and penetrate through the strongest

walls…there is no western and eastern, white or

black civilization

SHEPSTONE: But I have provision for educated

progressive Natives. They will be exempted from

the operation of Native Law.

PARK: Still, I see difficulties…Your policy

might defeat its own ends, unless it is so Amended

in the future, as to be repressive. As time goes on

and more natives become educated and civilized,

the Europeans will either be ungulfed by the flood

of educated Natives, or devise means to keep back

the bulk of cultured and exempted Native.

Joseph Boakye Danquah (1895 – 1965), a Ghanaian politician, writer, lawyer, and playwright, is credited with giving Ghana its name. His sole work, "The Third Woman: A Play in Five Acts" (1943), draws inspiration from the Akan myth detailing the high god's creation of three distinct types of women. Danquah parallels this myth with three historical developments: traditional, colonial, and independent. Additionally, he integrates Ananse spider folklore into the play, symbolizing a world of peace.

In the narrative, the third woman, Dudente, takes a stand against Europe, heightening the conflict. She informs the king that everything "of permanent value … inherited from the realistic West" has been lost. When the Chief Priest expresses a desire for women's liberty, Dudente responds:

The contribution of the Western

culture to Woman brought freedom

That freedom must have inspired

The creation of the Third Woman …

In the quest for a virtuous woman, the playwright symbolically recreated the West using the familiar language of the Bible, adhering to the unities of time, place, and action as a trailblazer in African drama in English.

Keita Fodeba (1921 – 1969), a dancer, poet, and playwright from Guinea, founded the theatrical troupe Theatre Africain, later known as Les Ballets Africains. The troupe showcased various Mande cultures and traditions. In 1957, Fodeba wrote the narrative poem 'Aube Africaine' (African Dawn), which was staged as a ballet performance. This play recounts the Thiaroye massacre of 1944, where approximately 300 French West African soldiers mutinied over poor pay and conditions and were subsequently killed.

Joe de Graft (1924 – 1978), a Ghanaian poet, educator, dramatist, and playwright, explored generational discord in his play "Sons and Daughters" (1964). The protagonist, James Ofosu, grapples with the responsibility of choosing professions for his children.

This is met with resistance from two of his children, Aaron and Maanan. The ensuing tension is later resolved by James' realization of his error.

Wole Soyinka’s "Dance of the Forests" (1963) is an allegory exploring the connection between spiritual beings and physical beings, serving as a warning to a newly independent Nigeria to refrain from glorifying its past. Through characters like Rola, Obaneji, Demoke, among others, the playwright creatively conveys the lesson that gods and people are linked not by a glorious past but by corruptible guilt. Ultimately, hope is symbolized in the half-child of the deceased woman.

Michale Dei-Anang’s "Okomfo Anokye’s Golden Stool: A Play in Three Acts" (1963) narrates the story of the Akan priest Okomfo Anokye, who seeks a golden stool through appeals to the gods. The play incorporates folklore and folk heroism, with the traditional use of dancing and drumming revealing timeless possibilities. This historical play serves as a dramatization of tales and legends.

Efua Sutherland's "Edufa" (1967) delves into the tension between the traditional and the modern during the dawn of a new era in many newly independent African countries.

In J.P. Clark's 'Song of a Goat' (1961), found in his book 'Three Plays' (1964), the theme of incest is sensitively explored. Zifa sends his wife, Ebiere, to a Masseur for a supposed cure for her barrenness. Ebiere reveals her husband's impotence to the Masseur, who suggests a ceremonial coupling with Zifa's brother, Tonye, as a solution— an idea rejected by both. However, out of frustration, Ebiere eventually seduces her brother-in-law. Zifa's discovery of her infidelity leads to a series of avoidable deaths in the family.

J.P. Clark's "Raft" is a one-act play depicting four men—Olutu, Kengide, Ogro, and Ibobo—adrift on the sea, clinging to a raft. Using rich symbolism, the playwright incorporates themes of homosexuality, Catholicism, betrayal of politicians, and labor strikes as the men journey toward their death on the River Niger.

His play "Ozidi" (1966) is rooted in Ijaw traditional experience, accompanied by music, dance, and miming, unfolding over a seven-day period. Beginning in the folktale tradition, spectators sit on the floor in a semicircle, invited to participate in the ritualistic portrayal. The play transforms popular myth in a traditional prototype.

Two noteworthy plays include Guillaume Oyono-Mbia's "Trois Pretendants: Un Mari" (Three Suitors: One Husband, 1962) and "Jusqu'à Nouvel Avis" (Until Further Notice, 1970) from Cameroon. In the first play, Oyono-Mbia blends events with humor, evoking laughter from the audience while addressing a family's taboos and superstitions in the context of newfound choices and freedom. The second play delves into the tension between tradition and civilization, village life, and the modern city. While advocating for embracing the positive aspects of new ways, it emphasizes not forgetting one's roots.

African dramatists have consistently aimed to portray life's truths with minimal conflict. Plays are effectively dramatized by externalizing spiritual conflicts, and African drama should strive to balance indigenous theatrical traditions with positive elements of Western stagecraft, resulting in a more rewarding and realistic theater experience.

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