Joseph Coleman de Graft, or Joe de Graft as he was known, was born in Cape Coast and received his secondary schooling there at Mfantsipim. In 1953, at the age of 29,and after an education interrupted by four years teaching at his old school, de Graft graduated from the University College of the Gold Coast. That year, he married Leone Buckle, an accountant from Osu, Accra and they subsequently had three children, Carol, Joseph and Kweku.
In 1955 de Graft returned to Mfantsipim where he taught English and was in charge of the Mfantsipim Drama Laboratory. A major influence on his work was Shakespeare, and he acted in, and directed, several of Shakespeare’s plays. He was also responsive to developments in African theatre and was responsible for the Ghanaian premieres of plays by two Nigerian dramatists: James Ene Henshaw and Wole Soyinka. He wrote plays himself, and one of the best known, Sons and Daughters (published 1964), dates from this time. It is a contribution to debates about careers and values among secondary school pupils.
In 1961, Ghana’s Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah, opened the Ghana Drama Studio, as part of a movement, the National Theatre Movement, to create artistic works relevant to Ghana and Ghanaians. Joe de Graft was seconded to become its first director and, in 1961, his play Village Investment was produced at the Drama Studio. This was followed in 1962 by Visitor from the Past, a text that was revised and presented as Through a Glass Darkly some three years later.
In 1969 de Graft he was appointed by UNESCO as a specialist in the teaching of English as a Second Language at the University of Nairobi. He spent almost eight years in Kenya and contributed greatly to the theatrical life of that country. He produced and directed plays for radio, stage and television; he also acted, playing Othello in both Shakespeare’s play and in Murray Carlin’s post-colonial Not Now, Sweet Desdemona. He played the cameo role of Wilby in The Wilby Conspiracy. The 1975 film depicted the escape from a top-security South African prison of Wilby, the leader of anti-apartheid struggle, with the help of freedom fighter Sidney Poitier and reluctant Englishman Michael Caine, while pursued by relentless South African official Nicol Williamson. The Kenyan locations stood in for South Africa.
During the same year (1975), he was commissioned by the World Council of Churches to write and direct a play for presentation at the African Challenge Plenary Session of the Fifth Assembly of the Council. The result was Muntu, a broad treatment of African history from creation through modern day. Muntu was published in 1977 and like other de Graft texts soon found its way on to secondary school syllabuses.
Back in West Africa in 1978, as an Associate Professor in the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, de Graft directed Mambo, his adaptation of Macbeth. Set in a fictional African country that recalled both Idi Amin’s Uganda and Ghana herself, the radical adaptation showed how creatively de Graft was able to use Shakespeare. On 1 November 1978, Joe de Graft died at the age of 54.