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The irenic Clark – A tribute

By Kemi Atanda Ilori
02 December 2020   |   3:07 am
J.P. Clark-Bekederemo, or simply J.P. Clark, is justly celebrated as a poet, playwright and scholar whose distinctions persist in his piquant and ingenious use of his Ijaw-Urhobo culture

J.P Clark

J.P. Clark-Bekederemo, or simply J.P. Clark, is justly celebrated as a poet, playwright and scholar whose distinctions persist in his piquant and ingenious use of his Ijaw-Urhobo culture of story-telling and myth-making to portray the human predicament of people struggling with forces outside of their control.

His works are a canvas of the richness of African traditional societies, the disruptive and demeaning effects of colonialism, and the continuing impoverishment of the people and the land by the unjust and corrupt apparatus of the Nigerian state.

In his poetry, exceptionally, Clark achieves international prominence in the accessible lyricism of his language, and the engaging socio-symbolic and romanticised worlds that he recreates. At times, Clark’s works are direct commentaries on contemporary politics and history in Nigeria or across Africa, as in his drama All for Oil (2009) and poetry, Mandela and Other Poems (1988). At other times, they are layered nuances of his philosophy and vision for a better world, for instance, as we find in The Wives’ Revolt (1991) and Casualties: Poems 1966–68 (1970).

Apart from this universal appreciation, however, critical reception of Clark’s works, matter-of-factly, his dramas, is either weighted down by excessively referencing their themes and craft in Aristotelian terms or delimiting them as narrow and probably unstageable interpretive perspectives on the tragic impulses and farcical circumstances of his leading characters. Invaluable as these views might be, they miss, perhaps, the significant irony that Clark’s dramas present: in Clark’s plays it is not the playwright-poet that is in focus but the lived experiences of his characters, stretching from the creeks of the Niger Delta to the bustling streets of Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital.

This irony, the lived experiences of Clark’s characters, particularly frames the dramatic narratives in Clark’s trilogy, The Bikoroa Plays. In the first play, The Boat, the personal animus between Biowa and Bradide is grossly inflated to serve as a device enabling us to see how the brothers’ open warfare is inevitably tied up in the community’s norms of the privileges of wealth contra the privileges of birth. As their coastal community gets sucked into the emerging capitalism engendered by colonialism and the establishment of trading ports, rustic Bikoroa rouses enthusiastically to embrace wealth as the ultimate symbol of power, and the deference to age must now accommodate this new effect.

The Clarkean tragedy of fratricide that ensues is an inflexion point for Bikoroans to choose either the Whiteman’s world or retreat from it into the walls of their traditional worldviews. Evidently, Biowa is guilty of killing his brother but his murderous act is ostensibly informed by the communal norm that encourages and invests primacy in the first-born.

In a twist of fate, the fratricide implies that two competing norms have clashed – the primacy of the first-born and the irreducible need for justice. The community is caught in the horns of a dilemma – their land remains under a curse until the murder is expiated. When Biowa is tried by the Bikoroans, found guilty and drowned, ironically justice prevails but it only loads the land with a further debt – the ghosts of Biowa and Bradide must ritually be “called home” for the family and the land to escape a repeat of the tragedy.

The community is unaware, but The Boat THE IRENIC CLARK – A Tribute by Kemi Atanda ILORI Page 2 of 4 purely ends in a sort of limbo for the family and the land, a limbo in which peace is merely a stalemate, not a victory for the family or the community. We leave the theatre sensing conflict may have ended but peace has barely been fostered. As such, the communal celebration to drown the community’s grief in dance and drink at the end of the play is ironically merely precipitate, even if suggestive of the community’s ultimate ethical consensus. This consensus faces its stiffest challenge in The Return Home, the second play in the Bikoroa trilogy. Tensions flare up again in a predictably Clarkean mode: the gulf between communal expectations and the individualised miniaturisation of communal norms. Fregene and Egberibo, the sons of Biowa and Bradide, are feuding over the disparity in their social status.

Fregene is a successful sculptor, Egberibo is an indigent layabout. Their schisms end in a violent and nearly tragic contest that rouses Bikoroa into a rush for expiatory rites to recall the ghosts of the boys’ fathers to forestall any tragic consequences. In the trio of rituals, the aspirations of Fregene and Egberibo are communalised and set as goals for the cleansing of the land. In “Ablutions”, the fratricidal dead are cleansed and restored to their family and clan. In the “ladder” the community is absolved of complicity in the fratricide, it was an act of fate.

The third ritual, consisting of “Heirlooms” and “Repose”, costume the cousins in their fathers’ apparels, evoking a restoration of their rights to the estates of their fathers. The rituals are designed to underscore the reach for communal harmony and coalition and the integration of individual motivations in communal ends. A sort of peace returns to Bikoroa again although, ironically, the Bikoroans have not dealt with the causative factors of the perennial threats of tragedy assailing their community.

There is a constant postponement of a root and branch reform of their communal ethos despite the apparent argument that it has become inadequate for enabling a different and perhaps better outcome for Bikoroans. Such an outcome appears to have been left too late as events in the third play, Full Circle, reveal. Ojoboro and Kari, the grandsons of Bradide are the new pair soon to be thrust into the arms of fate by their inimical distrust of each other and their mother Tibo’s partisan support for the younger, itinerant, urbanised but social failure, Kari. Kari suspects Tibo is a witch and the evidence is his failure to rise in life, despite his efforts in the bustling commercial capital of the British protectorate, Lagos. Kari violently assaults Tibo, Ojoboro arrives in time to rescue Tito and in the process flings Kari on the floor, killing him instantly.

However, unlike in the pre-sequels, Bikoroa is a much more aloof society, the community has become a bystander to the acts of the individual either as an appropriator of wealth or as a transgressor of communal norms. The kind of upswelling of communal fervour to prevent personal tragedies or pacify the gods to ward off the curse on the family and the clan noticeable in The Boat and The Return Home has been mothballed by, conceivably, the influence of modernity on Bikoroa. Recognising their failure to prevent or pacify, the community yields its ground to the family who mutely takes responsibility for finding a new consensus. Tibo leaves Bikoroa, returns to her own clan and, instead of a ritual to appease the gods, the community levies a token fine and a sense of community cohesion returns. THE IRENIC CLARK – A Tribute by Kemi Atanda ILORI Page 3 of 4 Arguably, as in The Boat and The Return Home, the most important outcome that Bikoroans desire is a kind of restorative justice which allows offenders to be restored to their family and clan, and salves the conscience of the community as a bulwark against reckless behaviour as well as a refuge for the disadvantaged. Although there is conflict and it can lead to tragic consequences, relations between the citizens of Bikoroa are conducted within a set of norms that privileges consensus above dissension, and communal harmony above the disharmony of feuding family members.

Accordingly, in The Bikoroa Plays, society is recreated as a series of intersecting conflicts in which the watershed is the calcifying of the instinct for a consensus rather than an all-out conflagration. Perhaps, this is why in my view, mega texts are absent in The Bikoroa Plays, leaving Clark’s theatre entirely integrative and assertive in its aesthetics and political vision. The radical function that shows in an irreducibly counteraction relationship between groups and persons is largely muted into an instinct that rallies the family and the clan into one hegemony.
Continued on Opinion page tomorrow.

Consequently, in Bikoroa, instead of a radical abolition of the prevailing social structure, there is a perennial irenic dash towards coalition and consensus. This overall view that we discover in the web of social relations in The Bikoroa Plays is not entirely strange in defining the possibilities of J.P. Clark’s aesthetics and politics, particularly, in his dramas. Whether as performed or read, although they speak of Clark’s activism on behalf of the marginalised and the disenfranchised through an art-form that turns the stage into a place for colloquy and colourful symbolism, the enduring social vision discernible in these plays is of an author for whom radical alternatives cannot be the revolutionary collapse of society.
Continued on Opinion page tomorrow.

Clark’s sensibilities as an artist whether purely revealed in lyrical poetry, carved in romanticised imagery of rustic communities, or seeded into satirical ironies are foremostly a testament to a political vision that is outrageously against injustice but nevertheless seeks a consensus for what the future holds. Clark is assertive in his art and politics but, in a concrete measure, his works appear to live in that mid-house between ultra-conservatism and radicalism in which the future of society is peculiarly uncertain, if not negotiated with care and consensus. In this guise, Clark’s art and politics are also integrative – albeit innovatively so. Witness the mixture of aesthetic forms and provenances in his poetry and dramas, take a look at his controversial but hardly revolutionary searchlight on politics and history in Nigeria and globally. However, there is in J.P. Clark a pre-eminent “third way” – his way – that is carefully structured to stir the argument but leave it largely unresolved and pointing towards consensus and coalition, rather than disharmony and conflagration. Is this a weakness or strength? Must committed art be only that form that is incendiary and politically overt? Is committed art merely that form of protest writing that has Marxian goals and creedal strategies as its terrain? Perhaps, the value of Clark’s way is its universal detachment from political absolutes and irreverence for any art that is laced to something of a political slogan.

Humanity – uncensored, idyllic and recreated in eternal simplicities – is at the heart of Clark’s way and this may yet prove the longlasting legacy of Clark-Bekederemo in the annals of African, nay, global literature. THE IRENIC CLARK – A Tribute by Kemi Atanda ILORI Page 4 of 4 J.P. Clark has been described as one of the four greats of Nigerian literary authors in English in the immediate post-Independence era – the others being Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. In the defining cataclysm of their era, the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), Christopher Okigbo dropped his pen and took up arms in defence of Biafra and perished in the Nsukka sector of the war. Chinua Achebe spent time as a cultural ambassador and apologist for the Biafran cause and Soyinka spent considerable time in solitary confinement for his role in seeking to find “the third way” to avoid or ameliorate Biafran secession. In contrast, J.P. Clark remained in his teaching post at the University of Lagos. His beloved Niger Delta, because of its oil and gas reserves, was a precious spoil that the opposed Nigerian and Biafran forces fought bitterly over.

Clark chose to stay within Nigeria, undoubtedly traumatised by the wanton bloodshed and widespread destruction occasioned by the war, as revealed in his war volume, Casualties: Poems 1966– 68 (1970). Although his position was controversial and his poetic reflections greatly misunderstood and misjudged by people he describes as his “flockmates” in his reminiscences, Clark in his dramas and life deconstructs society’s crises as a watershed to acknowledge grievances, not to escalate them, and to invoke ethical sanctions in which restorative justice allows a coalition of mutual interests and not a revolutionary collapse of society’s mainstay. The irony of Clark’s position is reflected in his dramas where consensus often breaks down because society cannot be cured without its boils being lanced. But who really can say that historically revolutions have always produced a better society? In his typical but undervalued political insight, on 5 March 1986, Clark-Bekederemo summoned Soyinka and Achebe for the trio to meet Ibrahim Babangida, the Nigerian military President, to spare the life of Mamman Jiya Vatsa and others who had been found guilty of coup-plotting and were awaiting execution by firing squad. Their agency proved futile, as the condemned men were shot that evening, but it underlined J.P Clark’s humanity – certainly, the irenic Clark.

Atanda Ilori former lecturer at Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife, is the publisher in Chief at the University books U.K.