“Let’s take a selfie instead,” proposes James Ebo Whyte.
It is infrequent for a 64-year-old to know about selfies, much less take them—but not Whyte, the renowned storyteller with whom I have just wrapped up a conversation—he’s the cool grandpa. He smiles into my camera, eyes glistening with youth.
Here in an old playhouse in Osu (from where Roverman, his production company operates), rehearsal is about to begin for the next showcase of Dora, Why? his new work. Still, he affords me 30 minutes for a discourse that centres on the technique of storytelling. His long-sleeved shirt is buttoned all the way up; only one button shows, though: a dot of yellow on his neck. There’s a bit more colour to be found when one looks a little higher at Whyte: a patch of white – interspersed with few black strands – that perfectly contrasts his dark face and a bald pate.
I find those physical features as striking at the end of the discussion as at its very beginning when Whyte opens up about his style to the art of storytelling.
Allow me to take you back to the very start:
“If you’re a Ghanaian, I think your relationship with stories begins from childhood,” Whyte opens the conversation. “We are a storytelling nation. Every narration is a story in Ghana, and so it began from childhood; from listening to the old lady [his mother], listening to people in the neighbourhood…”
Where his ‘old lady’ left off, Whyte picked up at secondary school, PRESEC—Osu (formerly Osu Presby Secondary School), when in Form 3. That was where Whyte first embraced theatre, and he’s not looked back since.
To my mind, Whyte’s works, saturated with intoxicating humour and sobering emotion in equal measure, caters to the primary themes of forgiveness, redemption, and our general need for fixing.
It’s not just those three, though, as White points out. There’s also political power, relationships etc.
“The challenge, however, is to come up with stories that people will find relevant and will relate to. In that quest, you look for some of the issues that are trending around you. Then, you’ll realise that people may have an issue with this kind of thing—and that will inform the kind of stories we put out—because, the person coming to watch must go away feeling that: ‘I can recognise what the play is about –it is relevant to me, and so has helped me deal with a real-life issue.’”
Theatre was Whyte’s introduction into the arts, and though he doesn’t dismiss the potential of going into film, for instance, plays remain his forte: “I am very comfortable with theatre, where I see such possibilities.”
He quickly runs me through numbers: “Over 70% of passengers on Ghana-bound flights will be foreigners mainly here for business. What that means is that we book them into a hotel, and we go and pick them up between 7:30 or 8 or 9, and take them to the office, do the day’s business; then, between 4:30 and 5, we go and drop them at their hotel. And we leave them at the hotel till the next day.
“That person comes, goes away, and has no memory of Ghana, because he could have done that business on phone, or asked his Ghanaian counterpart to meet him in Europe for.”
Whyte leans forward slightly, painting additional details into the scenario: “But imagine this: that when that person came, after the business day, whilst we’re driving him to the hotel, we say: ‘hurry up and have supper because we want you to go watch a play.’ If he comes to watch the play and he loves it, next time, he’s not [only] coming for business; he’s coming because he enjoyed the experience. So, next time, he’s coming with his family—because he knows that while he is doing his business, he would take his family in the evening to go and see a show.
“That is not happening in Ghana,” Whyte worries, and then shares a troubling development: “For those of us who have been in the private sector, we know something: when our foreign counterparts are coming to Ghana, they don’t come willingly; they come out of pure necessity. But if they have to go to South Africa, they go with excitement, and they extend their stay. So, they fly to Ghana, do the business, and they’re out. [When going to] South Africa, they plan their holidays to coincide with that trip, so that, instead of a day or two, the guy is staying there for a week with his family.
“We need to have that in Ghana so that people don’t come here and hurry back. We can get to the point where, if somebody is going back, he is crying; he doesn’t want to go; he wants to spend another day, and another day, leaving with dates of the next play. It’s not just for the playwright, it’s for the whole economy.”
To be able to relate a good story, Whyte echoes that it is key to cater to human interest. Consumers should relate to it on a personal level. It is what informs the various elements injected into the Ebo Whyte play—to ensure that nobody is left out. If the dialogue doesn’t gratify you, the music will, or the choreography: “We try to give a total experience, knowing that, depending on what somebody is going through, different things will appeal to them,” says Whyte.
And how far is he willing to stretch a story?
He paused to ponder.
“I come from the position that there’s a lot we need to unlearn in Ghana. We’ve imbibed so many bad things as part of our socialisation, and we need to change that. For instance, when it comes to the issue of dealing with somebody irritating or annoying you, we have become a people who will tell you off. If you look at even driving; a driver insulting another driver is taken as a very normal thing.”
Yet, “it is not a normal thing,” he cries. “Because guess what: whatever mistake that driver did that has annoyed you, you would also make the same mistake –so what’s the point? There are always better ways of dealing with things. I know that there’s a lot we need to unlearn in Ghana, and I’m hoping that the plays may provide a starting point where we will begin to have debate and discussion on some of these things that need to change among us.”
For patrons of his plays, Whyte’s productions are entrancing. Intense!
The tempo of one’s heartbeat doesn’t beat the same walking out after a show. It is intentional, stresses Whyte. At Roverman, they are passionate about their craft and push it as far as they can.
Since 2008, Whyte has served a new play each quarter, mainly at Ghana’s National Theatre. A stellar track record over time has ensured that he has become a theatre rock star; our very own Tyler Perry. His work has been praised by occupants of the very pinnacle of the social ladder, including former President Jerry John Rawlings, Archbishop Nicholas Duncan-Williams and a host of other top names. His patrons have included everyone from Second Lady, Samira Bawumia, to musicians E.L and Samini. Seminal productions from Whyte’s stables and an overall enviable ethic ensure that 60% of the people who patronise Roverman plays this quarter, for example, will return next quarter. He must give them a reason to. And a sure way of achieving this is to let patrons leave with an experience they did not imagine they would have, and repeat that over and over again. That way, patrons attend gripped in the suspense of what next Whyte will come up with.
“We work toward it –it is really part of the plan,” stresses Whyte, whom his many followers have affectionately christened “Uncle Ebo.”
From here, we delved into how, nearly two decades on, he has not yet run out of stories.
Short answer: where they come from: “If you take your stories from what you already know, then you don’t know very much.”
Whyte notes that stories abound around us, great tales that can be harvested by simply listening and watching; to everyday news items, street encounters and so on. Again, he prides himself in being “a consumer of other people’s products.”
“I watch every play in Ghana—and it doesn’t matter if the person is a new playwright or not […] because you can learn from everybody—and once you have that mindset, you can never run out of ideas. You don’t.”
I inquire what—if anything—goes into what stories he decides to tell at a particular time. No, he replies. There’s no such process. Whatever story he picks, he executes with the following mindset: “how can we tell this story in such a way that you’d have to be a Ghanaian to tell it, you would have to be Ebo Whyte to tell it, and you would have to have worked with Ebo Whyte to be able to tell it the way it is told.”
In other words, “what uniqueness we can bring to the story. There’s always a distinctive take to it, he points out—so, take any play of his, and another director will treat it with a different twist and interpretation.
About his longstanding reputation as “village Solomon,” which is a by-product of his permanent genius, Whyte reiterates what a “privilege and honour,” it is, for his thoughts to become meaningful to others—for him to have “acquired enough life experience that even [his] mistakes become a blessing to other people, because it helps them to know what to avoid and to do better.”
What will be the proof that he has ever fallen short?
The answer pours almost as soon as my question falls fully. Clearly, this is a subject that occupies his thoughts regularly: “If anybody close to me repeats the mistakes I’ve made, then I’ve failed,” he nods.
“There are mistakes we would all make because we don’t know the future, but once you’ve encountered somebody who has passed through it, and you repeat the same mistakes, then something is wrong. And my hope is that my life will become such an open book that everybody can read it and avoid the mistakes I’ve made and maybe emulate the success I’ve had.”
In contrast, feedback on the impact of his plays arrives more promptly. In the theatre, it’s simple: “You would hear the reaction.”
Whyte observes that the Ghanaian theatre patron is not as patient as his European counterparts: “European audiences are trained not to react until after the show, but the Ghanaian audience can interrupt the show to laugh, to cheer, and sometimes, even quarrel with the character on stage.
“I hear it. We feel it in audiences’ body language when they’re walking out of the theatre,” he explains further. “If they’re walking away and they’re laughing and quoting some of the things in the play, then you know it has hit home well. That’s the advantage of live theatre: the report card is given to you immediately. I don’t have to wait. From the moment the curtain lifts, I can tell: ‘Alright, we’re carrying the people, or ‘no, we’ve lost them.’ If you go into the audience, you can see from whether they’ve put their phones down or they’re staying on them. You can always tell.”
Outside the theatre, people confront him all incessantly, relating what changes they have effected in their lives after they saw a play of his—sometimes, even recalling the exact play, and the exact part of the play that inspired their turning point. Feedback also comes during Whyte’s preaching engagements. Often, people would approach him after his spiel with testimonies of the Roverman effect.
Sure, emails too.
Finally, “every now and then, you meet people in town and they will say something that makes you know: ‘ooh, okay, he or she is a fan of what we do. The evidence is all over the place.
In recent years, Whyte has experimented with another storytelling avenue—novels; publishing “The Deal,” and “The Perfect Couple,” both 2017 masterpieces to critical reception. Curious, I inquire what specific aspects of the story a novel can achieve that a play can’t.
Depth: “A novel can give details, or it will be a very bad novel.”
He follows the statement with a question for me: “Do you remember the last play you watched?”
“Dora, Why?,” I reply.
“Okay, in Dora, Why? one of the lead characters is called Jude. We know Jude is a Ghanaian—born who was adopted by an American couple. In the play, we can’t show the whole process of adoption. In a novel, I have the freedom to show the whole process. In the play, Jude talks about how he has been through a lot. In a play, you can’t show everything he’s been through—you can hint at it. But in a novel, I have the freedom to explore all that: his career in the marines, the two trips he made to Iraq, and how he got out of the army, and how come he’s now doing his own business. So, the level of detail that I have: the freedom to bring in for a novel. I won’t have that for theatre.”
On the other hand, what theatre has over a novel, to Whyte, is that it “enables the people to see the character. So, there’s an immediate connection. That connection, you would have to use a lot of words in the novel to try and create—and you may not be able to achieve that.”
When I ask what elements constitute the “Ebo Whyte stencil” of storytelling, he serves me a methodical response punctuated by his quintessential practical humour:
First, “you must have a character. It [the play] must always be about a personality or personalities. That character must be struggling with something; either to achieve something, or to survive, or to make it in whatever way.”
Next, obstacles: “You must create obstacles for this character –there must be things that are stopping this character from achieving what his aim is. But for us to care about that character, you have to portray or create a character that I’ll like. If I don’t like the character, whether he succeeds in getting the girl or not, what do I care?
“But if I see that he’s a good guy when I see he’s making a move to the girl, I’m already wishing she’ll say yes. To make it a full story, however, the woman should say no. [Otherwise, there should be someone around the girl who has more money, more fame, and more power than this guy that I like—whom the girl’s people even seem to prefer. So, the pressure is on the girl to say yes to this man, and not to our man.”
This takes us to plot: “What happens in the story, and why does it happen? And, because it has happened, what does it lead to? What also happens because this happened? Don’t give me just chronology.”
And then, conflict: “The character must always be struggling against something. And you must stretch it. It can’t be that simple or straightforward. Does he walk away? Does he give up?”
It is one thing to imagine stories. It’s another thing to summon these narratives live via actors. Therefore, Whyte selects the cream of the crop, using the core criterion of passion: “How much are you ready to sacrifice to get this thing done? Because a good performance is always a lot of hard work –that is the only secret.”
Like all practitioners of excellent work, Whyte runs a rigorous regiment. The performers he engages typically also have other day jobs. So, rehearsals normally begin at 6 pm and could last till 9 pm. On weekends and holidays, the hours are even longer—sometimes, 11 hours.
“Would you be willing to pay the price?” he asks, assuming a tone that makes me suddenly feel like I’m at the verge of an initiation. “Would you be willing to do what it takes, and put in the hard work that is required? If you can give me that, that’s all I ask for,” he shrugs.
Initially, Whyte declines to comment on the reason his stories always have a currency to them: “I don’t think that I’m the one to answer,” he chuckles. “I think that those who find it current must tell you why they do.”
But he supplies an answer anyway: “I take elements of a story very seriously because I know that is what will get you the result you want. The other thing is: I don’t take my audiences for granted, and that is why we would always begin on time.”
Finally, “we always aim at beating the last production. So, we compete with ourselves. So we would have to beat ‘Dora, Why?’ for quarter 2,” he says confidently.
“As long as you keep pushing the frontiers, you’ll continue to stay relevant.”
How did the selfie turn out? Great. Dora, Why? too (as is consistent with the Roverman tradition)— leaving me, like the thousands of Whyte devotees, with enough nuggets to masticate on till quarter 2, when Whyte and company return with the next big play.