The Daily Report’s Pelu Awofeso chats up Patrick-Jude Oteh on running a repertory theatre for 20 years, mentoring generations of artistic talents over the years and what guests should expect at this year’s Jos festival of Theatre (9-14 March)
The Daily Report: The Jos festival of Theatre is in its 14th year. It is remarkable, knowing that many projects like it fade away after a year or two. How did you manage to pull that off, and what would you say has been responsible for the festival lasting this long?
Patrick-Jude Oteh: It is not us but some institutions and organizations that found us worthy to support our work. It has sometimes been very funny – you walk into your office and you get a call directing you to work. That is always an amazing experience. We certainly have a lot of organizations and institutions to thank. Nigeria also has some very tremendous individuals who support the arts without equivocation. They have been responsible for assisting us in lasting this long.
TDR: This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the Jos Repertory Theatre: What has it been like running the organisation for this long?
PJO: It has been exciting. It has been challenging but above all it has been engaging. You know, my wife and I always ‘yab’ ourselves when we remember the very early days when artistes were paid with coins from gate takings. Then, the gate fee from our performances in schools was 50k and at the end of all performances, we gather these coins and this is what all the artistes are paid with. We have been very grateful for all donors that have come our way in 20 years. We are also grateful to the numerous individuals who found us worthy enough to support our work. We are also grateful to our audiences who come to watch our plays. We have received support from some unexpected quarters and we do not take this for granted. The challenges have been there but there is none that we have not been able to surmount. And we are still in business and we are still going strong. We thank so many people. So, so many.
TDR: What events and/or experiences would you say have been the highlights of JRT over the past two decades?
PJO: It has been a momentous two decades. We have been excited about the many young men and women who have gone ahead to carve out careers in the arts and some have even gone ahead to establish their own outfits and schools. We are equally excited about those of them that still remain in various facets of the arts. We have also been very excited about our international touring which exposes us to other horizons, other styles of work and best practices in the Arts. Above all, we have been delighted by the progress that we have made in two decades. It might not be much and all our dreams might not have been achieved but we are certainly on solid footing enabling us to continue to work towards our dreams.
TDR: Since 2001 thereabout, Plateau State has been in the news off and on for very negative reasons, and by that I mean the inter-religious and other clashes. How has that impacted everyday living generally and the arts specifically?
PJO: People have learnt to adapt and like almost every city in the nation, they cope. In terms of everyday living, the trend we find is that people just cope, adapt and move on. As for the arts, what this has done is to bring out the power of youth. We are thus faced with bare-knuckle creativity which is soul driven. I am describing a situation where youths create with the barest minimum but get optimal results. It is a remarkable experience and this is not limited to daily living but to all facets of the arts. It is truly remarkable.
TDR: Turn out for the festival was huge last year. Quite honestly, I didn’t expect to see such a packed space: what would you say was responsible for such impressive attendance?
PJO: The people of Jos and environs are urbane in character and thinking. Also, there is a big trend of forward looking arts movement in the city. If you also notice from last year, we had quite a number of people coming in from outside Jos specifically to attend the festival. We hope that the trend continues this year. But we were pleasantly surprised about the turnout last year. It was a typical case of one person brings two or three. In fairness to the directors, actors and actresses, their talents are awesome and they share this passionately with the audiences. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the actors collectively are all world class. But we certainly do have a crop of young men and women in the city who are familiar and passionate about their craft.
TDR: How are the plays for the festival decided/ chosen? Is there a theme that guides the decision making, or is it based on happenings in the country?
PJO: There is a committee that has the liberty to choose our plays. The readings typically start in September and they work gradually to end of November when they submit the list. The festival generally has a major theme and the one for 2020 is building connectivity and that is the only guide they have. JRT selects plays around the theme and hands these over to the festival play selection committee. The selection of the theme is done by JRT – based on happenings and trends that we observe in our travels and work across borders. We had wanted to do a lot of work around the Desert and Mediterranean migration patterns this year but funds did not allow us to venture that far but we have a script from the couple of months that we were working tentatively titled Walking on the Mediterranean. We will continue the work after our trip in May.
TDR: Feminism is a major movement in the world now. Do we expect to see a play (like Queen Amina of Zazzau, for example) soon that speaks to that trend?
PJO: We are looking at other options. As you know, Wale Ogunyemi’s Queen Amina of Zazzau has been one of our major contributions to the feminism discourse. However, the production if done faithfully is huge and a financial strain. But we are looking at other options because in the years post 2000 when Chief Wale Ogunyemi wrote his version, there have been other plays that have come up, cheaper to mount with fewer characters. We are looking at these options.
TDR: What should attendees to the festival this year expect to see?
PJO: It is the diversity of the plays that we are offering this year. Coincidentally, we are performing six plays that deal with the common people and their tragedy as well as royalty with their burdens and pains. There is a play on youths, their foibles and challenges and of course politics and the various alignments will not be left out. There will be a street version of Woza Albert! and the adapted play is on the idea – what happens if Jesus Christ was to come to Nigeria? There will be workshops and seminars and of course the usual hang-outs after each performance. It is going to be a very interesting and exciting week.
TDR: And what’s the 2020 calendar for JRT like?
PJO: We opened the year with a performance of excerpts from Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi Is Dead which was a commissioned performance. We are moving on with the 14th Jos International Festival of Theatre and after the festival we are off to Prague in the Czech Republic where we will participate in two major festivals. We return to Nigeria and all things being equal, we should be in the US in the summer for another engagement. We will return to continue our season of plays in Abuja, ending with a landmark performance in November to mark 20 years of our existence. On the sidelines we will continue with our radio drama series and we are working with MEDA-Nigeria Way project. These will be a series of radio drama encouraging women and youths to go back to the land and make a living from the proceeds of the land.
TDR: What’s the mood in Jos at the moment?
PJO:: I always say that the people of Jos and those who live in this beautiful city are very resilient people. The city is calm, very cold presently and the mist in the air is heavenly. Undoubtedly there has been challenges and troubles but the people have a surmounting spirit that enables them to rise above all the travails. There is a strong determination in the city to rise and soar. The city is a happy city. Very happy city.