Monday 21 May 2012

Guest post: "Jos Repertory Theatre: Living and working in Nigeria", by Patrick-Jude Oteh

Patrick-Jude Oteh was my colleague last year in the Kennedy Center Fellowship. I remember remaining speechless after his presentation of the work carried out by Jos Repertory Theatre, which he founded in a small and now divided nigerian town called Jos. How can a theatre company fulfill its mission in a place where people´s safety is one of the first priorities? And what is the role of that same company when operating in an environment defined by terrorism, curruption, ethnic and religious divides?

Emeka Nwabueze's When The Arrow Rebounds, the stage adaptation of Chinua Achebe's novel Arrow of God, directed by Patrick-Jude Oteh for the 2011 national tour and 2012 Jos Theatre Festival.  © The Jos Repertory Theatre Archive

I live and work in a state with a population of 3.5m people, the bulk of whom are self-employed and government workers. The people of Jos, which is the capital of Plateau State, are hardworking, energetic and welcoming. In the city, there is a healthy mix of people from other parts of Nigeria, which has 36 states, and the federal capital territory, Abuja. Plateau State used to be the only state in Nigeria where you could easily find other tribes and nationalities co-existing peacefully. Until twelve years ago.

Due to a mix of politics, economics, religious and ethnic intolerance and mass unemployment, all the various segments of this once vibrant and beautiful city now live in segregated and dividing enclaves all round the city. There is mutual distrust, agony and pain in relationships which, barely a decade ago, were being built across various divides.

Our theatre company, The Jos Repertory Theatre, started operating in this city a little over a decade ago. Then it was fashionable to hold productions at 7pm in the evening and audiences were feeling safe in a night out in the city. Not anymore. It is termed risky if we start a production by 5pm. These days most people are indoors by 7pm. The last festival in 2012 saw productions finishing at 6.30pm. We had to cancel the post performance discussions, which gave people a channel for their voices to be heard, so that people could go home on time or be in the comfort and safety of their neighbourhoods. Commerce and schools have also taken the same path. It is sad to see schools populated only by pupils of the same faith or pupils of the same ethnic stock. The markets, once vibrant spaces for social interaction and relationships, are also not spared.

Lonne Elder III´s Ceremonies In Dark Old Men, directed by Osasogie Efe Guobadia for the 2012 Jos Theatre Festival.  © The Jos Repertory Theatre Archive
The reason for this unfortunate development in the affairs of our nation, of which Jos is only but a tiny fraction of a larger malaise, is the struggle for power and for the control of national resources, as the person or group that holds political power in Nigeria is also the one responsible for sharing national resources. People are struggling to rule not because they want to serve but because they want to be the ones to decide who gets what and when. There is also a lot of mind-bending corruption, in a country so richly endowed, which has killed off so much of our time honoured values.

In the last two years, it has become very challenging to work in the theatre. We pulled off two theatre festivals, but it was done under very hard and challenging circumstances. Part of the objective of our recent work has been to use the theatre to foster dialogue and interaction amongst the various people and sides of the unending conflicts.

Due to the fact that we are being confronted with a lot of issues that seem to defy solutions, most of the time our work seems like a consistent and constant failure. You get this feeling that you are not doing enough. But then, what can you do in a situation where a lot of people do not see the need to give to worthy causes like the theatre? Five years ago, we started an initiative whereby if we could not work within our host city we would work in the nation’s capital, Abuja. Our capital has not been spared either. It is almost like we are in a perpetually boiling cauldron.

How do you keep hope alive in this environment?

We have been fortunate as a company to work with a group of young people who simply want to create and don´t want to know where or who they are creating with. They simply want to know the human being. It is not always easy keeping everyone safe within the different enclaves, but it does help to know that their generation is keen on working with each other, forging friendships and closeness that no amount of politics, religion or ethnic differences can erase. These are the future leaders of this society. They are vibrant and they are resilient. When hopes and morale are at a low, they are the ones who keep us going by their unspoken words and deeds.

Barrie Stavis´s The Man Who Never Died, directed by Patrick-Jude Oteh for the 2012 Jos Theatre Festival.  © The Jos Repertory Theatre Archive
The rise of terrorism in our country simply added another dimension to our woes. Like everything Nigerian, whenever we take on something, we always build a better model. That is what has happened with our terrorists. They are getting more and more sophisticated and along with this sophistication has come a new sense of daring. They are willing to take on everything and everyone. The government and the press are not spared. The unfortunate aspect of this presently is that there is nowhere safe in the country, except in the south, which has not experienced terrorist attacks.

This has definitely affected all aspects of our work. We cannot do any work now without thinking of security issues. When searching for a space, in an area where spaces for performances hardly exist, we have to look for upscale venues which are more expensive, which means that we have to charge our patrons enough to cover our costs, though this has the potential of driving patrons away from the theatre. They have other concerns than theatre! Another sad dimension, which is fast posing a huge challenge, is the fact that people try to avoid crowded places. So having an audience is no longer guaranteed.

Our hope is that our country will go back to what we used to know, not the present aberration that we can hardly recognize. Our hope is that one day the government will translate its words into action, especially in the provision of employment for a crucial sector in our economy. Thus far, the government has not been able to match words and rhetoric with actions. The President had promised a $200m arts intervention fund which would be made available to all arts sectors. Almost two years later, we are yet to hear of anyone who has been able to access the fund. Even the very existence of the fund has been involved in controversy, with the government now saying that the money was to build infrastructure for the arts sector. We have not seen any structure or support system for the arts in place. As an organization, we have continued to rely on individuals and some support from the corporate sector.

This is the country where I live and work. Is this the country where my kids will realize their potential? It is doubtful. However, we are a very hopeful and prayerful people.

Patrick-Jude Oteh is the Founding Artistic Director of Jos Repertory Theatre, an independent not-for-profit theatre organization in Nigeria. He studied Theatre Arts at the University of Ibadan, where he also got his Masters degree and he is currently a Doctoral candidate. He briefly taught African Drama, Directing and Acting/Speech in the Department of Theatre and Communication Arts at the University of Jos. He has been involved in theatre related projects in the USA, UK, Italy, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya and South Africa. One of his on-going involvements is the stringing together of a group of touring theatres as well as creating a database of companies and actors in the West African sub-region. He was a Summer International Fellow at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington D.C. He is involved in the formation of the 1st Arts Management Center in Abuja and writes a weekly column on Arts Management, called From the Live Stage, for the Peoples’ Daily Newspaper.

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