John Pepper Clark: “Mother of George” By Cleophus Thomas, Jr.

20 September 2013

New York Times movie critic, A.O. Scott, is careful not to reveal knotty issue central to the narrative tension of director Andrew Dosunmu’s film “Mother of George” an “exuberant, dignified, little bit anxious” drama about a Nigerian bride (Ike) and Groom (Ayo) living in Brooklyn, where Ayo, his brother Biyi and their mother operate a restaurant.

There are heavy cultural pressures on the couple to have, not only a child, but a son. They fail to conceive and in the face of this dilemma Scott writes “her mother-in-law proposes a solution that is at once shocking and bluntly practical. I won’t go further except to say that the matriarch’s plan pushes “Mother of George” decisively in the direction of melodrama.

John Anderson writing in The Wall Street Journal is less coy in his nonetheless elegant encapsulation of the film:

The traditional Yoruba wedding is a sumptuous ritual, resplendent in golds and blues and harbingers of distress. “You will give birth to a son,” declares Ayodele’s mother…”You will give birth to a daughter, too. You will give birth to twins, as well.” The problem is Adenike doesn’t give birth at all, even as a year goes by, then two.

This is unacceptable. “You know what to do” [her] mother-in-law tells her meaning the same course of action they would pursue back home: Finding another father…of the same bloodline. Which means Ayodele’s brother, Biyi.

mother georgeWhat do we know about “The same course of action they would pursue back home…”?

American culture took note of this course of action 50 years ago with the publication of “A Dark Bag” a poetry review in Poetry by LeRoi Jones. Jones introduces us to Nigerian writer John Pepper Clark and his verse play Song of a Goat with these passages:

Masseur: Your womb is open and warm as a room it ought to accommodate may

Ebiere: Well, it seems to like to saying empty.

Her empty womb is the result of her husband’s sterility

Masseur: An empty house, my daughter, is a thing of danger. If men will not live in it bats or grass will, and that is enough signal for worse things to come.

The Masseur, a wise man, chastises the husband for suggesting the infertility is ovarian.

Masseur: …why must you send her to me to take the birth cure when the fault is not with her? Others may have taken your fees and agreed to help you keep up appearances. I will not be one of them.

Then the husband is asked:

Masseur: …Have you considered another should take over the tilling of the fertile soil…?

Zifa: You lame thing, you crawling piece of withered flesh how dare you suggest a thing like that to me?

Masseur: What I…

Suggest our fathers did not forbid even in days

Of old.

In Song of a Goat, the union of wife with her brother-in-law is accomplished in a manner remiscent of D. H. Lawrence or Gore Vidal’s erotic wresting scenes. The two began as combatants and end in congress. An ostensibly daft old aunt must explain to a child, the wife’s first born, what he fearfully sees:

Dode: Help, help! My mother, my mother! Tonye

Is wrestling on

The floor with my mother!

Orukorer: …Why boy these are no leopard and goat interlocked between life and death, but two dogs at play. Poor child, let me close the door.

Dode: Will you leave them to fight there? My

Uncle is the strongest man in all

The creeks. He will kill my mother.

Orukorere: He will not, my son, rather it is she

Who may kill your uncle…

Dode: You won’t separate them then?

Orukorere: Only the gods and the dead may separate

Them now, child…

Though the elder confirmed that the forefathers did not outlaw such “tilling”, the outcome tends to suggests that the gods do not favor them. In the companion play, “The Masquerade”, we discover the son’s mother died after his birth. From Situation Three A we encounter:

Diribi: Listen, my daughter, this man’s

Mother died bearing him.

Titi: He has told me this himself.

Diribi: Has he? Did he tell you also his father

Usurped the bed of his elder brother, yes,

Brazenly in his lifetime, and for shame

Of it hanged himself in broad daylight

While the unfortunate abused husband

Walked of his own will into the sea.

(at page 68)

Song of a Goat dramatizes how ancestral pronouncements (our forefathers did not outlaw such) though uttered in dulcet baritone before a camp fire be the stage directions propel one to a tragic end. John Pepper Clark is also the author of The Example of Shakespeare.

The themes of a critically acclaimed movie “Mother George” resonate with the literary work of a canonical artist, John Pepper Clark. The failure of reviewers to note this connection in the widespread almost entirely positive assessment of the film is illustrative of the missed connections in the assessment of African and African American culture in our country.

Three Plays by J.P. Clark, Oxford University Press, first published 1964 Fourth impression 1976. Quotations contained herein are from this edition.

© 2013 by Cleophus Thomas, Jr.

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