By - Isaac Joseph
JP Clark, whose full name is Johnson Pepper Clark-Bekederemo was born on the 6th of April, 1935 to an Ijaw father, Clark Fuludu Bekederemo, a Chief and an Urhobo mother in Kiagbodo, Warri Province. Clark-Bekederemo grew up in a small fishing village, where there was no elementary school. However, he had access to the best education that British colonial Nigeria had to offer owing to his parents’ influence.
The Early Life of Clark-Bekederemo
Clark-Bekederemo started his early childhood education at the Native Authority School in Okrika (Ofinibenya-Ama), Burutu LGA (then Western Ijaw) and the prestigious Government College in Ughelli. In 1954, Clark spent a year as a clerk in a government office, where he gained contacts with some of Nigeria’s elites before gaining admission to the University of Ibadan to study English. While in the university, he was involved in the editing of articles for various magazines such as “The Beacon” and “The Horn,” . These magazines gave ample opportunities for publication to several writers who later went on to become the first generation of Nigerian authors.
After graduation from the university in 1960, Clark started his career as a writer and journalist with the Nigerian government where he worked as an information officer; he also featured prominently as a guest writer and an editorial writer for the Daily Express in Lagos from 1960 – 1962. During this period, Clark-Bekederemo’s early plays and poetry had been published and well circulated among Western readers. With his fast rising profile, he caught the attention of university programs in the United States that were established with the goal of cultural exchange in mind. He became a recipient of Princeton University’s “Parvin Fellowship” and was in the United States for the 1962 – 1963 academic sessions. While in the United States, Clark-Bekederemo clashed repeatedly with his hosts and he was asked to leave Princeton just after a year. His brief visit to the US was productive in terms of artistry.
Clark-Bekederemo’s Experience in America
Clark-Bekederemo documented his experiences criticizing what he saw as materialism, sexual obsession and ignorance of Americans about the rest of the world in his book; “America, Their America,” which was published in London in 1964 and appeared five years later in the United States. Clark-Bekederemo, while at Princeton worked on two plays. The first play was titled “Masquerade,” which was a romantic tragedy that carried forward the lives of some of the characters in “Song of the Goat,”. It was compared to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as it presented on stage a rich portrayal of West African life; while showing the ‘interrupting’ power of romantic love against the structures of the traditional society. Also, in Clark-Bekederemo’s play, “The Raft,” which was intended for radio broadcast had four characters, who were woodcutters that float logs to urban markets through the Niger River. They soon fell into mortal danger when their raft started to break up and got faced with the challenge of cooperation. The play, in its entirety seems to be an allegory of the ethnic divides prevalent in Clark-Bekederemo’s Nigerian homeland.
Clark-Bekederemo’s Return to Nigeria
On Clark-Bekederemo’s return to Nigeria, he spent a year as a Research Fellow at Ibadan and later began the research that produced the “Ozidi saga.” He got married to a Yoruba woman, Ebun Odutola, a talented actress in 1964. They had three daughters, Ebiere, Tamara, Imoyadue and a son, Ambekederemo. He joined the faculty of the University of Lagos that same year and in 1972, he was appointed professor of English. The years 1975 and 1976 saw him emerge as Distinguished Fellow at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Clark-Bekederemo wrote more on African themes in his writing, “A Reed in the Tide.” In his volume of poetry written in 1965, Clark-Bekederemo wrote on the Nigerian political themes that endangered his life. Clark-Bekederemo’s life was highly influenced and affected by a series of military takeovers that led to a full-blown Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s. Emmanuel Ifeajuna, his former classmate, a military officer, lost his life after Clark-Bekederemo had helped to bring him back from exile in Ghana into Nigeria. It was a terrible experience as the world looked on in horror as a region of Nigeria split off and declared independence of the Biafra nation, only to suffer horrific reprisals at the hands of the Nigerian military.
Clark-Bekederemo and His Art of Poetry
Clark-Bekederemo’s documented his war poems in a 1970 volume called ‘Casualties’. These poems addressed the conflict from different perspectives. The poem that gave the book its title explored the stance of Nigerians who shared their opinions on the war from abroad, attempting to give support for one side or the other. He wrote: “The casualties are many,/and a good number well/Outside the scene of ravage and wreck;/They are the emissaries of rift,/So smug in smoke-room they haunt abroad,/They are wandering minstrels who, beating on/The drum of human heart, draw the world/Into a dance with rites it does not know.”
In the Casualties’ poems, Clark-Bekederemo used elements of traditional African animal folktales to distance the reader from the events talked about which made some Nigerian readers angry. Some critics observed Clark-Bekederemo’s description of the war as one that shaped and rippled through the entire society. Clark-Bekederemo, however, wrote very little in the 1970s; this might be because he was discouraged by the controversy that followed his works or probably exhausted after ten years of intense creative work. Clark-Bekederemo edited a literary magazine called “Black Orpheus;” he also worked on the traditional Ozidi saga and made the English translation. He also participated in a film based upon that epic. His teaching career however was on the high as he spent a year teaching at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut and eventually became a department head at the University of Lagos.
Clark-Bekederemo began to develop his creative drive around in the 1980s. He retired early from the university that year and established a theatre company, the “PEC” (for Pepper and Ebun Clark) Repertory Theatre. The PEC Repertory Theatre was Nigeria’s first repertory theatre institution, an ongoing theatrical company committed to the performance of a mix of classic and new works. Some works written by Clark-Bekederemo was staged by the new company; his 1985 play, The Return Home was part of a series of three works the author titled “The Bikoroa Plays.” These works were based in a half century of Nigerian history through which Clark-Bekederemo and his ancestors had witnessed. Clark-Bekederemo also wrote a comedy, “The Wives’ Revolt” in 1984 that was influenced by Aristophanes, the ancient Greek comic playwright.
Clark-Bekederemo wrote an anthology, “State of the Union and Mandela and Other Poems,” which was published in the 1980s; some of the poems in these volumes examined the challenges of contemporary Africa and did away with all forms of youthful idealism Clark-Bekederemo might have harbored concerning the future of the continent. Several of Clark-Bekederemo’s collection of plays and poetry were published in the late 1980s, both in Nigeria and diaspora; Howard University Press, in the United States, issued a collection of his works along with his translation of the Ozidi saga. He remained an active writer into the 1990s.
In 1991, Clark-Bekederemo received the Nigerian National Merit Award for literary excellence and was the recipient of various other awards. He recently unveiled his latest anthology of poems, “Remains of a Tide,” which was published by Mosuro Publishers, at the JP Clark Centre, University of Lagos in 2018. The anthology was written in honour of friends and relatives alive and those that have passed on. It was dedicated to Ebun Clark, his wife of 52 years. Clark-Bekederemo remains a legend in the world of African literature; and an emblem for African poetry.
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