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From Lagos to Jos: Theatre festivals expanding Nigeria’s cultural landscape

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A scene from Lope de Vega’s Fuenteojevuna, directed by Seyi Babalola.

As Lagos Theatre Festival (LTF) 2018 drew to a close on Sunday, March 4, in Lagos, Jos Festival of Theatre (JFT), organised by the U.S. Mission in Nigeria, in collaboration with the Dr. Patrick-Jude Oteh-led Jos Repertoire Theatre (JRT), took off the same day in faraway city of Jos, Plateau State capital.

The two festivals completed a robust engagement of the performance arts in different parts of the country. Luckily, they did not clash as other cultural festivals often do.

Indeed, with the two theatre festivals organised both by British Council Nigeria and U.S. Mission in Nigeria, the performance art received significant boost, particularly in the use of unconventional spaces for theatrical performances.

The festival had as theme ‘Creative Expression in a Time of Hope.’

For instance, while Lagos Theatre Festival mainly has Freedom Park, Lagos, as it major venue, Jos Festival of Theatre has Alliance Francaise, Jos, as its performance space.

This is in keeping with the mantra in entertainment parlance that the ‘show must go on’ in spite of the absence of purpose-built theatre facilities in the country.

While Freedom Park is home to LTF, Alliance Francaise hosted all the performances of JFT in Jos. Audiences in both cities relished the offerings that came in the form of workshops, panel discussions and the abundant theatrical performances.

A major fallout of JFT 2018 is its director, Oteh, who has served notice of retirement to his team, when he said he was handing the festival over to young members of Jos Repertoire Theatre to run.

In an emotional vote of thanks, Oteh said having managed the festival for 11 years, it was time to move on and allow young blood, who had worked with him to take charge so they could inject a new impetus in the festival.

Such impetus would include internationalising the festival from next edition. Indeed, it would seem a season of handing over just as British Council Nigeria has also handed over LTF to a board to run it from next year, as the council begins a tactical withdrawal from being the prime organiser.

At the opening in Jos, Plateau State Governor, Simon Lalong, sent his representative, Commissioner for Tourism, Culture and Hospitality, Mrs. Tamwakat Weli, who noted, “Apart from symbolising creative expression in a time of hope, JFT also affords us the opportunity to showcase our beautiful city to our visitors at the festival.”

The governor said further that his hope was that as those who attended the festival returned to their respective destinations, they would, apart from taking a piece of the arts, go with a piece of the beautiful city of Jos and the fond memories of their encounters at the festival.

“Jos is a city of peace,” Lalong said. “It is the city renowned for hosting arts events that have gone to be landmark to the entire nation. We think of the glorious 1970s and 1980s, when we had classic productions like Cock Crow at Dawn and Behind the Clouds soap operas, which have become pacesetters to other areas of endowments in what we all know today as Nollywood.

“We take a special pride in the artistic achievements of our beautiful city and it is our sincere hope that you will return when we call for the next edition.

It is worthy of note that the National Association of Nigeria Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP) has adopted the festival for the annual celebration of the international theatre day nationwide. It is a very welcome development.”

He conveyed the appreciation of the people and government of the state to the US Mission Nigeria for continuing to enrich people of the state with a festival like JFT.

According to him, “It is our hope that the support will continue to build trust and confidence that is beneficial to all. As a government, we will continue to lend our humble support to this programme.

I understand that in the course of the festival week, there will be performances of international and Nigerian plays on the stage, emerging playwrights as well as workshops in different facets of the arts aimed at empowering our legion of extremely talented and creative young people.”

He said it was a thing of pride that all the plays were rehearsed in Jos with local talent, who will be in full view in the week of artistic events.

“We lend our full support to this initiative, and we will, as a matter of sustained commitment to the creative industry, give assurances of the willingness of government to continue to support the initiative of this nature,” he stated.

“The rescue administration is the one that takes cognisance of the aspirations of the youths and our teeming populace.

These are groups that we target with our rescue agendas, the three E-dimensional approach of providing employment, economic empowerment and engagement of talent.

“We are hopeful that as we target the full development of our people’s potential in all critical sectors of the economy, we shall be providing the general economic fortune of our state. We all look forward to a week full of artistic activity. Please, feel at home as you savour the beautiful weather and rich tourism the state is blessed with.”

STUART Symington. W., U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria commended organisers of the 11-year old festival for the partnership with the U.S. Symington noted, “Our embassy has the remarkable opportunity to partner with the talented actors, technicians, producers, and directors of this festival.

Together, you continue Jos’ historical tradition as a cultural crossroads, as a place where people come to exchange their ideas, their art, and their inspiration.

People have long come here from all walks of life, bring their individual traditions, informed by different languages, cultures, and faiths. Tonight, it resonates again with the warm light of your art and the positive energy released when individuals and whole communities come together as one.”

Symington praised Nigeria for its huge population and diversity and said the world duly recognises these attributes and noted, “In the process, you write a hopeful script for the whole world… The festival’s theme ‘Creative Expression in a Time of Hope’ celebrates the energy and imagination of the human spirit no matter the challenges or circumstances.

We see that spirit in the leather works in Sokoto, the tech start-up leader in Kano, the Nollywood director in Lagos, and the advocate for the forest and fauna in Cross River State. Nigerians possess incredible creative potential. I have witnessed that spirit first-hand from one end of Nigeria to the other.

I join with you and with all Nigerians, who share a commitment to fulfilling the hope that Nigerian’s best days lie ahead of it. We will continue our heartfelt and vital partnership knowing that our success will benefit both our nations and the world.”

Founder and Director of Jos Repertoire Theatre, Oteh, harped on the need to “use the arts as a meeting point for all races and for all peoples. It is another festival year and another opportunity to use the arts to try to forge a new spirit of togetherness, and hopefully find peace with one another.”

Oteh underscored the challenges Nigeria faces, especially in an election year and the fears and anxiety that are looming, and sued for a special place for the arts as catalyst for regenerating national life. He charged governments to set aside “too much rhetoric.

Rhetoric in the ability of the arts to regenerate society. Rhetoric in the provision of viable alternatives to our hordes of youths, who continue to wonder at what the nation is offering them. It is our sincere hope that in the course of the 6 week, some of them will find answers to what the future holds and their position in it.”

However and sadly, peace continued to elude the once peaceful Plateau State, as the spate of killings continued between Fulani herdsmen and farmers; it obviously marred President Muhammadu Buhari’s visit to the state and his launch of Road Map to Peace in Plateau.

Oteh, however, expressed his gratitude to the U.S. Mission in Nigeria for the partnership and other organisations that believed in the arts and actually put their money where their mouth is in support of the arts through sponsorship of the festival.

THE stage was then set for the opening play of the festival, Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge directed by Patrick-Jude Oteh, who is also the artistic director and producer of the festival.

After the staging of the tragic play that was as riveting as it was funny, Oteh later said that the first play that had been chosen for the festival was Leroi Jones’ The Slave “but we realised that the play was written for an era that was not in consonance with what was happening, the era of 1950s and the early 1960s.”

Oteh said that in as much as Jones’ play is topical, “why would one do a play with that title at this point in time?” explaining that at the time it was written, the play identified with the civil rights movement but that was not so much the case right now.

According to him, “The committee eventually came up with A View from the Bridge, which captures everything from those of us that live here who go to Libya hoping to get to Europe and when you actually get there, the American dream, what is it? And why would you want to migrate with no plan?

That, first of all for us, is one major question that we are trying to ask and we are going to be asking it in different forms within this week. If you want to migrate, there must be a plan.

Even the Americans encourage you to come but insist you have a plan. But if the only plan is to work for dollars, then sooner or later, you are bound to run into trouble.”

The festival director said the process of directing the play was not an easy one because “we had the psychological aspect of the play to deal with.

For instance, on the surface, what we see is Eddie Carbone wanting to possess and actually take over the entire life of his little niece, Catherine. But looking at it more deeply, it wasn’t as simple as that.

There was something else that was driving him. At a point for us, when do you let go and let them fly to live their own life? Eddie Carbone could not make that distinction.”

The reaction of the audience, a full house of theatre lovers from all walks of life living in and beyond the state, lent credence to the fact that the cast and crew succeeded in the task of delivering the old play in a contemporary time.

On Monday, March 5, three workshops were held, one on Arts Management with Oteh facilitating, a Dance/Choreography one by Bose Tsevende and Salsa with the Laballa crew.

The evening performance was the musical Brother Jonah’s Vocation, written and directed by Anthony James Akolo of Jos Repertory Theatre. Akolo, who said he wrote and scored all the songs in the play, stated that it took him a year and half to write the musical.

“My dream is to go into the musical theatre; so this is kind of experimental,” he said.

There is no doubt that Brother Jonah’s Vocation experiment came out successful no thanks to Cynthia Jones’ angelic voice and the great singing and acting skill of the rest of the cast as well as the unforgettable message that is a take on Christian religion.

It is a musical whose tones will resonate for a long time to come even if Akolo feels that the major challenge in staging the play, or any play for that matter in the country, is technical, particularly sound.

Akolo, who said he has four other plays, is comfortable with the idea of taking the play round the country so the many more people can get a chance to see it. But surely, he would need funding support, a commodity Oteh lamented is gradually becoming scarce in the country and a hindrance to robust artistic engagement.

Segun Adefila of Lagos-based Crown Troupe of Africa took the workshop on Acting on March 6, the same day the Spanish play by Lope de Vega titled Fuenteovejuna was staged. Directed by Seyi Babalola, it is a true-life story about events in the little Spanish city of Fuenteovejuna, whose citizens grapple with the antics of an overbearing commander they eventually put in his place, when they forcefully mobilized to redeem the honour of their city.

Babalola said he had to adapt the script otherwise it would have meant having to work with at least 36 characters to fit the resources and actors at his disposal.

“It was a huge challenge for me,” he confessed. “I had a few sleepless nights, I must confess. I was torn between cutting down the characters and, knowing that it is a Spanish play, I had to streamline the story and merge some characters” in order to cut the production time from two to one hour and for the audience to be able to follow the story.

The audience thoroughly enjoyed the piece in its fast-paced enactment and innovations, including the revolting peasants wearing black and wielding every-day utensils in their battle against their oppressive rulers, whom they overthrow.

A splattering of a white screen with ‘blood’ symbolised the gory end to the commander’s life, an ingenuous way the director adopted to tone down the violence visited on the tyrant.

Ahmed Yerima’s Mu’Adhin’s Call took the stage by storm on Wednesday, March 7. Directed by Sunny Adahson, it is about politics, power tussle and betrayal.

According to him, “I tried to ‘Hausanise’ some of the strategic words that needed more emphasis. I tried to see how my actors can play with both Hausa and English considering the kind of audience we have and because this is the background of this particular play.”

The play stared versatile Osasogie Goubadia as Queen Asmau at the centre of the power tussle and manipulation of the King to her benefit by handing power to her son. But things don’t go quite the way she plans and when the noose begins to tighten on her regarding the death of the king, she takes her own life.

Guobadia, who not only acts well but also does make-up, choreography and photography for the Jos Repertory Theatre, directed the play for the next day, Thursday, March 8 titled Renovations by Sefi Atta. It turned out an apt play for the day celebrated worldwide as International Women’s Day. Renovation focuses on family and divorce and the disruptive emotions that often come between man and wife.

Earlier that day, Professor Elisabeth Nyager of Department of Theatre and Film Arts, University of Jos, took the workshop on Playwriting with particular emphasis on three of Nigeria’s female playwrights, Zulu Sofola, Tess Onwueme and Sefi Atta. The engaging workshop got participants that included men to pen three one act plays, took place at the American Corner Jos.

The next and last day of the festival saw the performance of August Wilson’s play Radio Golf in which the ambition of an African-America for the mayor’s office gets thwarted in a series of moral misalignments in opposition to public good.

Also, Fences by Wilson, performed February 25, served as the pre-festival play.


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