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Ebun Clark: The matriarch and her two Idols

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Ebun Clark’s contribution to the field of theatre arts in Nigeria is not in dispute. Regrettably, however, this is not often acknowledged —perhaps inevitably, given that her name is easily eclipsed by that of her world-famous husband, the incomparably protean poet and dramatist, John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, who even now at an age above 80 years, continues to churn out compelling poetry.

Still, there is no denying the fact that ‘Sista’ Ebun—as I fondly call her—has established her own solid footprints to qualify for mention anywhere and anytime the history of theatre studies in Nigeria is seriously discussed. She was for instance, from 1963, one of the very pioneer academic staff at the old School of Drama of the university of Ibadan, which later metamorphosed into the present department of theatre arts, the very first of its kind in the Nigerian academe. At Ibadan, she taught Speech and Voice which she had studied at the Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance [now known, since 2007, as the Rose Bruford University of Performing Arts] in Sidcup, London, before leaving, in 1965, for the department of English at the university of Lagos, to join her husband. From 1983, she became the Director of Unilag’s Centre for Cultural Studies, and was appointed Professor of English two years later.

This was when she began to focus her research interest on both Shakespeare and, especially, the doyen of popular theatre practice in Nigeria, the late Hubert Ogunde. From this came several articles, culminating in the publication in 1979 of her seminal, ground-breaking work, Hubert Ogunde: the Making of Nigerian Theatre [OUP, Ibadan], that was enthusiastically hailed by critics.

Ebun Clark retired from the University of Lagos in 1991, pushed by adversarial conditions in the then fast-deteriorating university environment in Nigeria, and took employment with the Magnum Trust Bank. At the same time however, she helped to establish and manage the PEC Repertory Theatre, the first Nigerian professional theatre house in English, which she co-founded with her husband at the former JK Randle Hall, Onikan, in May 1982 in Lagos. This ambitious project of running an independent professional theatre in English survived for ten unbroken years, till it had, unfortunately, to close down. [Readers of my biography of Ebun’s husband, entitled JP Clark: A Voyage, will be familiar already with the story of this aborted, lofty project.] After this, Ebun went fully into business, establishing LASEM [the Lagos School of English and Mathematics], a communications consultancy outfit, and so nowadays makes only occasional incursions into the theatre world (as for instance in 2013, when she organized the JP Clark 80th Birthday celebrations).

So, it is a delightful surprise to to see her return after this long break to theatre business with her new book, titled One Stage: Shakespeare and Ogunde. Although a slim volume of three essays plus an interview, such is the limpidity of Ebun’s style of writing, and so lucid the manner of her exposition, that once you begin to read, you do not want to put the book down till you reach the final page.

The essays, as must be obvious from the title, are centred on the works of two iconic figures in the theatre world, Shakespeare and Ogunde. At first, it would seem curious, the coupling of these two names from such divergent worlds and historical periods. But Ebun more than justifies her choice, showing us the affinities between them. ‘As a scholar of the history of contemporary Yoruba theatre,’ she explains, ‘it has not been too difficult for me to see some marked similarities between the two theatres forms and styles [p30]’.
The first of these similarities ‘is their fondness of drawing on folklores, of using both written and oral histories to discuss contemporary issues in order to either correct or comment on social ills [p 30]’; and another conspicuous link is the fact that ‘both theatres at times camouflaged a political discourse that could not be openly presented because of official censorship.’[p30]

Shakespeare of course no longer enjoys the paramount status that he once had in our literature syllabus, at least since the advent of post-colonialism and post-modernism, but these essays show why his plays should be of continuing interest to any Nigerian, nay African, audience.

The opening essay, entitled ‘Shakespeare and Governance’, is a public speech that she delivered on invitation by the Nigeria Britain Association in 1997. Being a time of military rule in our country, one can see why the scholar herself exemplifies an instance of the playwrights’ tactical camouflaging of a potentially dangerous topic behind an apparently innocuous academic exercise. For her real, but hidden intention is to express a critique of the military right to power—that is the ‘usurpation of power [and] the consequence of usurpation of power….[in order to] propose that a nation that has undergone series of usurpation of power through violent overthrow of another government, could take a long time to settle down and develop.’….[p4]

This questioning of military dictatorship could obviously not be done openly at the time, hence the recourse to Shakespeare who, as Jan Kott has argued, always remains our contemporary in that almost all the questions we may want to ask about the human relationships have been examined in his plays. And in Richard II especially, Ebun reveals that the bard has pre-empted us on the subject of power, since the play’s central focus is the question: ‘should a bad ruler be left alone for the sake of degree or order, or be removed?’ [p15] Ebun however is an optimist: ‘As England, after its civil wars and revolts went on to work out its famous brand of democracy which allows its political class to cohabit with a constitutional monarchy obediently served by the military, Nigeria may yet find her own system of governance that is fair and just to all its citizens.’ [p 26] We say amen to that!

The next essay is politically less volatile, but is not for that less contentious. Entitled, ‘Othello and Lucy Negro…’, it is a speech that Ebun delivered in 2008 to the English Students Association of the university of Ibadan. Here, she is speaking before an audience composed largely of young adolescents and so one can understand why she shuns the usual jargon of critical hermeneutics in discussing the play Othello. ‘[M]y concentration, rather,’ she explains, ‘will be to share with you one untold story behind the creation of this magnificent tragedy, which I believe was written to commemorate the expulsion of blacks from England, through Elizabeth 1’s draconian 1601 Negro Transportation Edict.’ Then she goes on: ‘Among those transported, I believe, would have been Shakespeare’s highly controversial mistress, Lucy Negro.’ [p30]

This startling hypothesis leads her to a very interesting exercise in literary investigation, a virtual detective work, in which she proves, against the formidable authority of several earlier Shakespearean critics, not only that Shakespeare did have a black mistress called Lucy, but also that the love poems popularly referred to as the ‘Dark Sonnets’ were written for her.

It was this Lucy, known to have been the Madam of her own brothel at Clerkenwell, and who had many lovers among the gentry, whom Shakespeare serenaded in his works, and was the indirect inspiration for the play Othello. Shakespeare, loving her, could not but be directly and personally affected by the Queen’s draconian expulsion order. Concludes Ebun: ‘Shakespeare loved Lucy Negro, a whore, whom he considered a pearl; Othello, on the other hand, had a pearl who in the end he called a whore….The love of man always carries contradictions.’

From here we move on to the third essay, which one may describe as a stimulating essay in comparative folkloristics. Entitled “Othello the Complete Gentleman: An African Folkloric Interpretation,” it directs our attention to the astonishing thematic and structural analogies between the Shakespearean play and Amos Tutuola’s story, ‘The Complete Gentleman’ as narrated in The Palmwine Drinkard. The fact that these analogies of course could only be totally fortuitous, since Tutuola was not educated enough to have read the preceding text, and wrote in a different genre anyway, only makes the similarities more striking.

Indeed, it takes a truly perceptive and deep reading to decode them as Ebun does. And she is totally candid about the exercise: ‘I am not saying that Shakespeare was aware of the folktale [‘the Complete Gentleman’] when he wrote Othello, but that there seems to be an uncanny basis for comparison between the characters of the hero and heroine of the folktale with that of Othello and Desdemona…[and] to some measure a comparison also exists between the content and form of both stories…’[p53]

She then goes on to show us, convincingly, that, just as the central theme of the folk tale is the gradual stripping down of a false appearance of Beauty, and the punishment of the girl’s attraction to this superficial glitter, so we have in Othello a false Hero, whose true ‘beastly qualities’ are gradually exposed by Iago’s crafty manipulations, thus leading to the bitter punishment of Desdemona. ‘Remember that as Beauty goes with her husband deeper into the forest he begins to return his borrowed humanity with rentage… The stripping of Othello’s humanity seems to follow the same pattern. As Iago’s poison penetrates deeper and deeper into his subconscious mind, so different parts of his earlier refinements break down.’[pp65-66]

Thus Tutuola’s Beauty and Shakespeare’s Desdemona are analogous figures, deluded dreamers, vain and rebellious, unwilling to accept any social or customary restraints, disdainful of counsel offered by parent, or friend. Stubbornly, they make their own choices of spouses, in an age when such action was still taboo, and they pay a horrible price when at last they find themselves before the monstrous reality of their choices.

But is the work a racist play then, as some have argued? Ebun refutes the accusation, whose central theme she sees instead as the gap between appearance and reality, a familiar trope in Shakespeare. In this instance, Iago, who is white, is ironically the ‘devil’ …while Othello, the black man ‘dies as the tragic hero of the play with his nobility restored and thus intact.’[p74] Proceeding from this reasoning therefore, and reminding us also of a proverb then current in the Shakespearean period—namely, that ‘the white devil is worse than the black’—Ebun ends on what must be a controversial conclusion: ‘Othello is Shakespeare’s eloquent response to all racial bigots. By pitching his white character, whose colour represents goodness, against that of the black, the colour of evil, and by making the villainy of the white worse than the black, Shakespeare has transmitted a salutary coded message to his audience as well as to readers of Othello.’ [p 74]

The real plum of this collection however, for me, is the last section, which as I said earlier is an interview with Ogunde, carried out in 1982, but not published till now. It is entitled “The Decline of the Professional Contemporary Yoruba Theatre” [pp. 81-112] It deserves to be read in full, if only to catch the infectious, affectionate mood between subject and interviewee. But here I will attempt to indicate some of the highlights.

Ebun begins by directly accusing Ogunde of “killing over 300 years of professional Yoruba theatre practice by moving his theatre from the stage to the screen.” But Ogunde stoutly holds that he had not, that the theatre was only “sleeping”, and not dead. As he puts it, the screen is ‘just another part of the Ogunde Theatre. The Ogunde Theatre is the mother of them all…I am doing this not because I have left the stage; I am just away for some time and I hope to come back again. [p82] …the Yoruba theatre cannot die… it is sleeping…’ [p 85]

He goes on to explain some of the difficulties: ‘It takes a long time to make a foundation, to set the film village, to get a house where the technical crew will stay, to get the crew together; to get the script… that’s what we’ve been doing, and that is why we have not been able to perform for some time…. In this country, unless you help yourself, nobody helps you. Government will not come forward to help. If even you go to them on your knees…[pp81;84]’ One wonders how the film makers of today would respond to this!

However, Ebun is not convinced. ‘Now, 35 plus years later,’ she maintains adamantly, ‘we do know that centuries of unbroken Yoruba theatre certainly ceased when [Ogunde] shot his first film Aiye in 1980 after his famous stage play of the same name of 1972.’[p6] Against this accusation, however, we must balance Ogunde’s candid admission; ‘… for me, at my age, I think I prefer films…(but) I don’t think that should stop me from preserving the stage, from preventing its death as you say. I take the stage, live theatre, as my mission in life.’ [p93. My emphasis.].’ And indeed, shortly after the interview, by Ebun’s own admission, the Ogunde company did come to perform a live play at the Centre for Cultural Studies at UNILAG that she was heading at the time.

Another interesting point that I think worth underlining concerns the birth of the Yoruba film. Ogunde is very emphatic about this: ‘…I am the man making the foundation, I just called Ola Balogun to come and help in directing my first film…a director is just a part of the whole business. I told him about the costumes, I told him the story, I gave him everything.’ [p 82-3]

Linked to this is the accusation that he would not recruit graduates for his cast. He defends himself robustly: The trouble with these university people is they are operating on another frequency all together…. they all want something that is easy for them. To go on stage is vey hard. So, they want to go to the broadcasting stations and get a car. They are not prepared to work the way we have worked. They are not prepared to go into the field and suffer and have determination, no.’[p87].

There are other significant points in the interview, such as the continual battle with pirates, both here at home and abroad; the cooperative method of the Yoruba companies in the shooting of their films; the differences in acting styles and directing approaches, the use of improvisations, plus the loss of intimate contact with their audience when they move from stage to film; and so on.

But Ogunde insists that in whichever of these media he and his troupe may be operating, there is no change of purpose: ‘[Y]ou are continuing in films what you did on the stage – a reporter and recorder of your people’s feelings and tastes.’[p105].

It is gems like these that make this book a delight to read and a treasure to add to your library.
Osofisan Is a distinguished playwright and scholar-critic


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