By Anote Ajeluorou
Like his colleagues and friends the late Chinua Achebe (There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra; 2013) and Wole Soyinka (Alapata Apppata; 2013), JP Clark (the founding father trio of Nigerian literature, with Christopher Okigbo long lost in the Nigerian Civil War that ended in 1970, as fourth member) continues to write even at old age. This was evident last December, when he turned 80, with his two new plays, The Hiss and The Two Sisters, staged at University of Lagos to mark his 80th birthday.
And so Clark’s biographer, Prof. Femi Osofisan’s The Okinba Players staged Clark’s two plays, aptly tagged ‘JP Clark: Two Twilight Plays’, with Osofisan directing and Dr. Tunde Awosanmi assisting him. The Two Sisters focus on how the goings-on in the smallest unit of society, the home, has far-reaching implications for the larger community.
Far from being tired or retired, Clark, Soyinka and Achebe (until the latter’s death last year) continue to write. But while Soyinka has continued with the usual overt political engagement for which he has remained most vocal in his recent play (Alapata Apata), Clark’s a bit inward-looking, although the play The Two Sisters has the survival of a community as its concern, a community with orderliness somewhat disrupted by the wilful act or non-act of a foreign wife to one of its men. Achebe, of course, stirred the soul of a slumbering nation to wakefulness with his valedictory book, There Was A Country.
At the height of the pathos in this play is sexual behaviour and how it could turn the tide for the worse at both personal and communal levels. Clark is concerned that even in marriage setting, sex is such a potent tool, and that when wrongly wielded it could cause serious damage both to the home and the entire community. When withheld from the other partner, as Clark shows in The Two Sisters, sex could serve a disastrous end and that wives especially should beware how they use it to thwart a man’s will.
The play is rendered in the classic tradition of narrator(s) addressing the audience as part and parcel of the play in situating the incidents and characters in specific time and space, just as the actors merge with the audience to give it a familiar feeling and thereby sucking the audience into the intricate web of the plot.
Two sisters, Ebikedobamo (Adebisi Adeleke) and Brakare (Bimbo Benson), both married, have the souls of identical twin sisters with their hearts beating almost in unison, as they intuitively know what each other is going through even as far apart as they live. And so in a language replete with sexual innuendos, Clark traces first the lives of Ebikedobamo and her husband Omobo (Victor Onuka) in bed on a night when Omobo seems most libidinous and does not seem to be having enough of his wife, who is nursing their son, Akara. Ebikedobamo is further distracted by a premonition about her sister Brakare, whom she intuitively feels all is not well with in a faraway town where she is married.
Omobo is all frustration, as her wife’s concern for her sister compounds his sexual longing; she insists on travelling by canoe as is usual with riverine people to see her sister if only to assure herself that she is all right. This means Omobo would have to deal with his sexual hunger in the face of an absentee wife for as long it took her to visit her sister and return. Cornered as he is, he grudgingly lets her go:
(In a bedroom at Azagbene in the Niger Delta some centuries back, husband and wife are in bed)
Omobo: Where are you, Ebikedobamo?
Ebikedobamo: Right by your side, father of Araka, my son. Why do you ask?
Omobo: I somehow feel you are somewhere else, far away, and not here now with me.
Ebikedobamo: Nonsense. Here, feel me all over. I’m lying right here besides you, and you know that. My dear husband, always wanting to be reassured like a baby.
Omobo: Are you really sure you are here by my side, Ebi? I felt a deep sense of descent as you slipped away from under me.
Ebikedobamo: Why, my husband, why do you say such a thing? You know it cannot always be the same every time. There are high tides, and there are low ones.
Omobo: I missed that coming cry of yours, more like a song, calling for your man and the Almighty, in alternation, as if you are taking one for the other who, at the same time, you are crying to for help as we come together only to go again…
Meanwhile, a drama all its own is playing out with Brakare and her husband Kunbowei (Stephen Taiwo Joseph). Brakare is a strong-willed woman who loves to dictate how much of her wifely duty she performs for her husband. She is not one for the taking at the will of a husband, whenever he wants her. She believes sex should be mutual even in marriage, and the woman’s consent or mood is key in being part of the sexual encounter, a notion that is at variance with what Kunbowei, man of the house, knows is true of traditional duty of the wife. Tradition requires that a man should always have his way with his wife or wives except when they are heavy or during early days of nursing or during her monthly flow.
For a man to be denied sex by his wife on grounds of not being in the mood or some such frivolous reason is scandalous for the typical Africana man like Kunbowei in Clark’s play, especially when the man carries a turgid, bursting phallus as Kunbowei does on this fateful night and ready to empty it into his wife’s receptacle! But this is not Kunbowei’s night of enchanted magic, as his pestle is being wilfully denied its right to pound at its own mortar. Not even the strong-willed could endure such effrontery from the wife he married with his own money. So, Kunbowei goes away a pathetic man and does the unthinkable – hangs himself! But is it to spite his wife, just as there’s a suggestion that Kunbowei has other wives to whom he could easily have taken his quivering desire?
This is the point in which Ebikedobamo arrives to meet her sister Brakare grieving over the death of her husband. This enrages the clan and even the gods, and anger is directed at Brakare for ‘killing’ her husband with her strange act of denial. On the face of it, it pitches two communities against each other: Brakare’s community must find appropriate appeasement otherwise the drums of war would sound from Kunbowei’s and heads would roll to assuage a wife’s wilful act of ‘murder’. Brakare oscillates between grief and defiance over accusations of murder; she would not be intimidated even if her act or non-act would bring two communities into deadly collision. She insists her denial should not have led her husband to commit suicide.
Eventually, the community pronounces a verdict of not guilty on her! She is free to marry into Kunbowei’s family or else leave in peace to her town.
Clark’s The Two Sisters is both a study in uncommon filial relation between two sisters, who instead of being in bitter rivalry that could lead to tragic consequences, are in fact soul mates who rally each other in times of distress, with the death of Kunbowei serving to bring them even stronger together. On the other hand, although Clark condemns Kunbowei’s suicide, he nonetheless cautions on the inflaming nature of sex in marriage. However, why Clark, at the twilight of his life and career as writer, should engage in such volatile subject as sex and its ruination nature is hard to conjecture, but suffice it to say that he has presented one of man’s most intriguing aspects of man and we must take him seriously.
Also, the sensible manner in which Kunbowei’s community handles the matter of his suicide to avert bringing a war to its doorsteps is also instructive. Again, readers and those fortunate to see The Two Sisters on stage were treated to the ‘riverine lore’ to which Clark is besoughted; it’s what has formed his poetic and dramatic ouevre in over 50 years of lush creative engagement. It’s a testament of a master once again at his very best dramatic performance, a reward to his teeming fans as well as his acolytes wherever they may be.