He’d known her as a novelist, who won the inaugural Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa with her maiden novel, Everything Good Will Come in 2006. They met briefly at UNESCO Port Harcourt World Book Capital in 2004. When, however, Sefi Atta later staged one of her plays at Terra Kulture, Lagos, which Clark saw alongside his wife, Ebun, he was pleasantly surprised at her stage craft.
Prof. John Pepper Clark, who made no pretensions about his preference for poetry and admitted a diminished interest in developments in the fictional universe, made the recollection at the recent presentation of Atta’s collection of plays at Freedom Park, Lagos.
“My wife and I were pleasantly surprised to see her play at Terra Kulture on kidnapping,” he recalled. “I’m not a great follower of fiction works. I think there is enough to read in poetry. I’m delighted, amazed at her new turn of writing.”
Clark also recalled his closeness with Atta’s father, Azeez, who has since passed on, which mention brought tears to Atta’s eyes. For Clark, Azeez was a man who had a heart for the arts, noting, “Azeez, Sefi’s father, loved the arts. He had something of the artist in him but some other things took the arts away and he never followed the arts, but she takes after the arts.”
Clark also waxed philosophical about beauty and truth as the hallmark of arts, saying, “You can’t really tell them apart.”Also, he eulogised poetry as the ultimate creative form of expression, which even novelists eventually gravitate towards as the defining trait of a writer. According to the first African professor of English, “The best of the novelist always graduate to poetry as they age. I hope Sefi graduates to poetry. The best poetry in the English world is in the plays. Your best poetry is to be found in the theatre.”
Two actors, a lady and a man – Omoye Uzamere and Timi Charles-Fadipe – put life to Sefi’s lines in their part-reading part-performances of excerpts from the plays and literally transformed the hall into a stage. The duo had the parked audience at the exhibition hall on the edges of their seats with the sheer intensity of their performance.
Clark also praised Sefi’s playwriting ingenuity, and said, “The language captures life; her lines (are) very good. (It’s) very brave of Sefi to go on stage because the theatres are not really there. These plays are a delight to read. Until Ambode (governor of Lagos State, Akinwunmi) builds his five theatres, I don’t know when we are going to see the plays. Sefi is a brave girl. These are great literature; she is a revelation!”
A fine collector of visual arts, Clark commended Nigeria’s fine artists for the excellence of their works, saying literature needed to catch up with it. But Clark’s judgment would seem to have been coloured by his bias for poetry, as Nigerian novelists and prose stylists generally have created incredible literary works in the fictional genre, having won every available literary prize on offer at both local and international levels.
Boss of Jos Repertoire Theatre, Mr. Patrick Otteh moderated the event that had a former minister, Mr. Odein Ajumogobia and his wife, and former justice commissioner in Lagos State and author of A Platter of Gold, Mr. Supo Sashore, among other guests in attendance.