Jos, Plateau State, was a city of dreams until madness was unleashed in it. But things have since calmed and the city is settling down to regaining its lost soul. One man, Patrick Oteh, has worked for the transformation to humanise the city with his yearly Jos Theatre Festival, organised by his Jos Repertoire Theatre. In this year’s festival, held recently, Oteh spoke to ANOTE AJELUOROU, and gave expression to some of highpoints of the dramatic feast and how the culture community could collaborate to give the festival greater impetus.
How old is the festival and what was the theme this year, and how apt is it in relation to current socio-cultural, political realities
The festival is in its 10th edition. However, from 2004 to 2017, we are supposed to be in the 13th edition but we are in the 10th. We lost three years to lack of funds and the crisis in Jos. The theme of this year is A Decade of Stories and this is apt, as we have been telling diverse and interesting stories in the plays we have performed in the last 10 years at the festival. And believe me, the stories have been monumental. We have been able to create a crop of artists for the stage, who can hold their own anywhere.
Over the years, what has been the turn out of audience members/guests?
It has been an interesting mix. We have had audiences that averaged 4,000 over a seven-day period. We have had guests from the U.S., the U.K., and most of the states of Nigeria. We have metamorphosed from a six-week festival to a 10-day festival and now the more manageable one-week and in times of extreme scarcity to five days. Our history has been a very exciting one and we are thankful that we have managed to sustain this.
How have you managed to keep up? Any institutional support?
We have been luckier than most. We have had support from many diverse sources. The festival was started during our Ford Foundation grant years but in subsequent years, the U.S. Mission in Nigeria has ensured that we stay afloat. However, we are still on the look out for that consistent funding that will ensure that we can have a definite year-to-year programming. There have been a lot of fantastic individuals, who have ensured that we get to this point. Grand Cereals Limited and Jos Business School have been very active but we are still looking for consistent funding that will ensure regular and consistent programming.
Jos is a serene city for cultural fiesta like the Jos Festival of Theatre. How welcoming/receptive has it been to the festival?
It has again been a very interesting story. And again, we have been luckier than most. The city is a fantastic hosting city but the structures to support the festival as an on-going activity are still sadly lacking. We have a very enthusiastic audience culture, which has come to look forward to the festival. We have managed to develop our own structures around individuals and organisations like Grand Cereals, Jos Business School but these are not enough.
Jos has witnessed a radical change after the violence of a few years back. Could you describe Jos before and after and how the city’s landscape has been altered?
The people here are very resilient and resourceful and it is these attributes that we see at play in the years post the crisis. The city’s landscape is being positively altered and structures are being put in place to create a vibrant city and these need to be sustained. However, one wishes that the hope exhibited by the people could be translated to a more enabling situation where lives can be made easier on a daily basis. But I believe that this is not limited to Plateau State alone.
And has healing finally arrived Jos for a healthy cultural rebirth?
Healing post crisis is a very difficult thing to place your hand on and this varies from person to person or from group to group. There has been a lot of sustained dialogue that is beginning to yield results but this has to be sustained for that healing, equity, justice and fair play to reflect in everybody’s life and all begin to have a sense of inclusion. Culture and the arts generally have a very strong role to play in this. Do not forget that the more of such activities we have the more there is an increase in the sense of wellbeing of the people. It is only culture that can create a people that will reflect grace and beauty and we need this more than at any other time in our people’s history.
What were the highlights of the festival and who were your guests duration of festival? Any collaborations?
The festival will open with August Wilson’s monumental play Fences and we are expecting the U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, alongside the Executive Governor of Plateau State. We are expecting the hierarchy of the State Cultural Ministry and guests from neighbouring states, including Abuja. We are also expecting fellow artists and then the interesting mix of audience – theatre enthusiasts, students, civil servants, tourists and the ordinary people who just want to enjoy an evening watching a play. It was International Women’s Day on March 8 and that was the day that we performed Federico Garcia Lorca’s Yerma as adapted by Biyi Bandele and if you are familiar with the story you will note that it is an apt response towards enhancing the rights and privileges of women in our society. There will be workshops and talk shops and then the socialising after the performances.
We ended the festival with Aime Cesaire’s The Tragedy of King Christophe, which has always been rehearsed here in Jos but performed outside Jos. It is the biggest play cast-wise within the festival. Over a 100 people were employed for the duration of the festival and this year we specifically engaged someone, who looked at the economic benefits of the festival over the last decade.
Moving forward, what do you propose to make it a bigger, stronger festival?
Our ultimate desire is to make it a 10-day festival that will be sustainable and viable on the long term, utilising more venues. We will continue to seek for partnerships that will help us to make this a reality. We intend seeking out more plays that are diverse in nature that will help us to explain the world and we intend to expand the festival to include more countries participating.
Imagine a festival where you have plays beyond the U.S., Czech Republic, Spain and Nigeria in a French facility. Imagine such a diverse mix of stories and experiences. Theatre has become increasingly important with the crumbling of traditional borders and the creation of a ‘new’ world, where we are all grappling for meanings and explanations. If we are able to mobilise more funds, this will be a reality. Before then we can only keep trying.