Edge Media Network Review: HEAR WORD! Naija Woman Talk True

Publication date: 
February 5, 2018
Kilian Melloy
The first story we're given in HEAR WORD! Naija Woman Talk True takes the form of text projected on the wall at the back of the Loeb Drama Center's stage. We're reminded of how in April, 2014, militants belonging to the extremist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 female students from a state school in the town of Chibok, Nigeria. The action prompted an outcry, the echoes of which resonate still. Even now, some of those young women remain missing -- and this very stage work draws on the episode as a lesson in the harm that results when women are systematically devalued and objectified.

Ten Nigerian film and television actresses take the stage under the direction of playwright Ifeoma Fafunwa, sometimes all at once, sometimes in small groups, and sometimes for solo performances in which they illustrate, from a first-person perspective, what it's like to live in a culture that reduces a woman's worth to a handful of criteria such as how many sons she's had. Falling somewhere between sketches and very short one-act plays, the performances are self-contained, each taking on different aspects of a complex and deeply-rooted set of indefensibly chauvinistic values and attitudes.

At first the stories are unrelentingly grim -- stories of how women join in on societal dismissal (and sometimes accusation) of those who fail to conform. Women are condemned by their extended families for bearing only daughters, berated by their parents for not marrying young or dreaming of having their own careers, or mocked as "whores" for any number of transgressions -- dressing in a manner through to be too provocative, or going around in public unescorted, or even enjoying sexual relations with her own husband. There are tales of domestic violence, and heart-rending accounts of rape.

But there is also joy on the stage, and it takes many forms. The actresses (Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Joke Silva, Bimbo Akintola, Ufuoma McDermott, Elvina Ibru, Omonor, Zara Udofia-Ejoh, Rita Edward, Debbie Ohiri, and Odenike) wear brightly colored, boldly patterned clothing (the work of costume designer Ituen Basi), and their performances are punctuated by live music perfumed by a trio of drummers (Emeka Christian Anokwuru, Frank Ebisidor Asiyai, and Blessing Akpofure Idireri, playing Idireri's compositions).

The actresses sing at times, including a song that calls for an end to violence against women and a social structure that degrades them and denies their fundamental human dignity. A series of projections (by Johnathan Carr) on the back wall further illustrate their message and inform the mood of the piece: Thick gray clouds scud over a village in one passage, but later on the brilliant colors of a church's stained glass window light up the stage like sunlight burning away the mists.

Most striking is how the stories change from anguished tales of rejection, oppression, and victimization to declarations of empowerment. Hear these words, indeed: Women no longer see why they should accept the self-serving stories told by men. They have stories of their own. The 100 minutes of this show contain a gamut of essential tales and testimonies that tear at heart and conscience but leave you cheering for the better angels of the human soul.

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