Affectionately nicknamed as Mama Jo by the Wan Smolbag Theatre family, she has been in Vanuatu for a long time. She moved here from Africa where she was stationed with her current partner, olfala Peter. Olfala Peter, by the way, is how the WSB family like to call Peter Walker – Wan Smolbag Theatre’s artistic director.
Before becoming the patron and matron for Wan Smolbag Theatre, this duo was at Malapoa College – where Jo taught English to students who wanted to learn it, and Peter hung around. In 1989 they had the brilliant idea of starting a theatre group from scratch, using a small bag to carry all their props and costumes. From that small bag came a pun that birthed ‘Wan Smolbag’ Theatre. And from that came this NGO that I currently work for – probably the largest NGO in Vanuatu – Wan Smolbag Theatre.
A tribute to olfala Peter
Olfala Peter is no old fart – he is a freethinker and does not disguise it. He gets on well with everyone, but the moment you start acting like a jerk, he can paint you on a canvas with an assortment of colors. He has become aged due to overworking his system trying to force human beings to breathe life into imaginary characters. He has cajoled his entire adult life into working his nerves up into a storm and then letting loose on a crowd of unsuspecting individuals who initially thought that acting was easy. Why does he do this? Ask him! It’s his passion.
Now back to Jo
Jo on the other hand is compassionate and considerate. With an ever present smile on her face, she walks around Wan Smolbag Theatre with an air of reassurance that puts everyone at ease. She calls everyone ‘dear’ and doesn’t mind a quick chat if you would so care to indulge. She doesn’t pass by without saying a quick “Hello, yu oraet?” (“Hi, how are you?”). And she doesn’t mean that rhetorically. When you do reply, she will spend a couple of minutes (or more) with you.
And then there’s that other silent role she’s played in the life of Wan Smolbag Theatre. If you are like me, back when I didn’t know any better, you’d think that WSB’s actors came up with their material on their own. Oh, how can we be more wrong! (Well maybe not. They do come up with some of it). When oflala Peter directs a play or film, he is trying to bring mama Jo’s characters to life. He uses his group of actors to do that. Indeed, those characters and storylines spring from mama Jo’s imagination.
The first time I ever saw a major production by Wan Smolbag was back in 1997 (or was it 1996?) when they toured up to Santo and performed their community play at the former Cinema Hickson. It was funny, uplifting and thought-provoking. That was when I fell in love with this organization. I’d only ever watched WSB’s small groups that came up to my school (Matevulu College), performing some sort of awareness drama or other. When I saw that feature-length production with young people as part of the cast, I wanted to become involved with this organization!
Not too many people know that mama Jo writes for olfala Peter and his band of crooks. A lot of people know that I work at Wan Smolbag Theatre and when I get in a conversation with them about this organization, they focus their attention on theatre or Love Patrol. No one knows what my actual job is. They know I was once involved with Love Patrol, and when I tell them that mama Jo is the playwright, they go “Oh? Who’s that?” It’s then that I do my little awareness about this amazing woman.
She is a playwright. Such a title is befitting a woman who’s writing is full of passion about the grassroots’ way of life. About the realities of life in the slums and life in the village. She coaxes the unsuspecting beholder into enjoying a piece of visual art then hits home a message that leaves you wondering where you got lost in it all!
What she sees, she writes about. What she hears, she writes about. What she understands, she writes about. She has written to the point of exhausting all ideas regarding the ni-Vanuatu way of life, yet we never tire of her brilliance. Although the actors may trick us into accepting known cliches, we get to understand relationships from a holistic view. Yea, we become more accepting of how life is.
What I watched that night back in 1997, and countless other nights over the years have made me realize one thing very important. That Vanuatu is my home. This is where my life begun and this is where it will end.
I have often thought about when exactly I decided to be a nationalist. It’s been a long search. I never really had an ah-ha moment when I suddenly realized I would be a nationalist. Then I remember that night back in Luganville, when Morinda’s character purposefully cut herself so she could be sent back home. That scene appealed so strongly to me. Over the years, I’ve pondered over why I remembered that little scene and forgot about everything else.
I haven’t yet found out the specific reason, but one thing is for sure. That play motivated me to be a nationalist. It instilled in me the realization that I am a ni-Vanuatu in every aspect. It portrayed life in a setting that I grew up in. All the scenes came together and made sense because it not only simulated real life. It simulated my way of life.
And that is what mama Jo’s pen has been doing over the years. She has motivated people who work with her, who live with her, people who meet her on the streets, and total strangers around the world. Her imagination, conveyed on paper, has motivated people in all generations and from all walks of life.
Her penned dialogues have pushed shy individuals to stand in front of audiences and speak with a passion that has moved the audience into believing that said individual’s life was on display. Her imagery has pushed topics of restraint into households across the Pacific and beyond. It has saved lives, it has moved communities, it has changed perceptions, it has manifested a social movement of its own – fans of WSB.
Despite all that, mama Jo is still unknown to most of the people who’s lives have been impacted by her imagination.
This year, 2013, mama Jo became the Pacific Region Winner of the Common Wealth Workers Awards. I hadn’t thought much about the impact of her work until I received an email from WSB’s CEO announcing this achievement.
I caught up with her one morning and cheerfully called out a “Hey! Congratulations!” with a big smile on my face. She quickly retorted and said that really, it was an award for the whole organization. She was embarrassed that she had won the award and kept attributing it to the organization.
Her response to my felicitations humbled me. And so, it is to celebrate this win that I write this article.
Congratulations mama Jo. You very well deserve a personal win.