A Procession of Clouds (an excerpt)

by Lynda Crawford

Prologue: Special light on MPHO, a Basotho woman from Lesotho, southern Africa, brought up in the U.S. since the age of 12; rest of stage in darkness.


(As Oedipus) My poor children, I know why you have come—
I am not ignorant of what you yearn for
For I well know that you are ill…
You must know I’ve been shedding many tears
and, in my wandering thoughts, exploring
many pathways. After a careful search
I followed up the one thing I could find
and acted on it.

(As herself) My people are dying. Just like the people of Thebes. Like Oedipus, I’m on the trail of who or what is responsible. I too have answered the riddle of the sphinx—what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three at night? Us. Crawling, walking, and using a cane. But my people will never get to see that night.

In Oedipus’ time, they believed that if a plague came, it was because someone had done something to displease the gods—sort of what Westboro Baptist Church still believes. Oedipus tried to find out what that bad thing was so he could do something about it. Reading this inspired me to do the same about the plague of our lifetime. He consulted a seer for answers; I looked to a scientist: Dr. Jacques Pépin, an immunologist.

(Mpho might use a few slides or actors for the following, or not.)

Dr. Pépin’s theory doesn’t begin with a curse from the gods, but with a chimp, a  common chimpanzee—why don’t we call him Adam—living in the jungle between the Sanaga and Congo rivers in central Africa, eating fruit, plants, insects, and once in a while, as a delicacy, small monkeys. Adam enjoyed having sex with about seven female chimps when their vulvas swelled and they were in heat. One of them, let’s call her Lola, was spotted one day by a white man, a hunter, let’s call him Harry, as Lola was looking at clouds floating by on a beautiful African sky. Harry entered this blissful scene with his shotgun and (gunshot sound) he killed Lola.

(If any chimps have appeared, a moment perhaps for them here.)

Harry made quick work of carving Lola up after shooting her, and in the process, he nicked himself with the knife—and his blood and Lola’s met.

Dr. Pépin estimates that of all the chimps that ate monkeys infected with the simian virus, and of all the humans that butchered the chimps they shot, the likelihood of anything passing from monkey to chimp to human probably only happened a miniscule number of times—maybe only two or three. So there are these handful of infected Harry’s, and maybe they go home after killing and carving up their chimps, feeling powerful and full of themselves, and they fuck their wives or lovers or someone they pick up that hot steamy night, transferring the virus once more . . . . But even if these hunters were very promiscuous, or their lovers were, that alone could not have created the plague. Something had to help it along, to amplify it, as they say. And in the 1950s, along came the perfect amplifier: immunization.

Perhaps one of these Harrys, or one of their lovers, ended up in what we now call Kinshasa in 1959 working with the Belgian government, which brought in campaigns to immunize everyone to safeguard their white workers. All needles and syringes at the time were reusable. Even though sterilization was required, it was not always strictly enforced. The power went out for five days, a setback for electric sterilizers—oops. Sterilization required heating for five minutes, but perhaps the timing was not always exact—oops.  One unsterilized poke with a needle and . . . Oops. Oops. Oops.

Amplify that with an explosion of women who arrived in the town in the early 1960s. Desperate and hungry, they sold themselves sexually with as many as 1000 men a year. Dr. Pépin then presumes a flight to Haiti in the mid-1960s by one Haitian who may have been working in the Belgian Congo as a teacher or civil servant—about 4500 Haitians were there at the time—and this one returning Haitian gave blood in a plasma center operating in less than sanitary conditions. At the time, Haiti was also a destination for gay sex tourism, and blood from this plasma center was sold to the United States.

I’d like to stop here for a moment with a few thoughts. First on immunization: well-intentioned, humanitarian, and it has saved numerous lives, but sterilization of reusable needles is key. One other note: hearing a few years back that South African president Thabo Mbeki refused to allow HIV meds in South Africa out of fear that it would not cure the disease but spread it, many ridiculed him as backward and ignorant. No doubt western HIV meds are needed in South Africa, and they are there now, helping, but learning of the history in Africa with unsafe immunization, can we see why he might have been suspicious? Perhaps it was the West who was ignorant of this history.  One other thought: if those men hadn’t been hunting chimps in the first place . . .

In our modern version of this story, that’s the closest I get to a scapegoat. But there’s no one to blind or be exiled like in Oedipus. And my people are still dying. An ending that is not an ending.

[I had to cut most of this prologue from the recent production of A Procession of Clouds in the Unchained Festival 2013 because the piece ran over the 60-minute limit. So this is its first public presentation. —LC] 

  1. eliang says:

    I so want to read the whole play now. Great work!


  2. Jon Pierson says:

    That’s a mighty prologue, a whole lot of information to process, wow!


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