Come Close and Listen
December 21, 2017
Ifeoma Fafunwa, Director of Hear Word!

Director Ifeoma Fafunwa shares stories from women across Nigeria in the play Hear Word! Naija Woman Talk True, a series of vignettes featuring leading actresses of the Nigerian stage and screen. Here, she reflects on her inspiration for, and the creative process of, the show.

HEAR WORD! Naija Woman Talk True runs January 26 - February 11, 2018. Click here for tickets.

What led you to theater?

I was always fascinated by theater but didn’t see it as a viable career. When I was growing up in Nigeria, young people were made to believe that if you were not studying to become a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant, you were not serious about your life. So, I went into what I thought was an “acceptable” career art form: architecture. Years later, feeling really restless sitting in a design firm, I decided to try out different art forms on weekends. I painted, designed clothing, and also took acting classes, which I loved. Eventually, I moved to Los Angeles and joined a playhouse while still working by day in architectural firms. It was more fulfilling; however, I did feel limited by the plays I performed in. I wanted to tell stories about the world I grew up in, so I started writing stories about Nigerians. 

How did Hear Word! begin?

Hear Word! grew from a combination of several experiences in my life, starting with my return to Nigeria after being in the US for about twenty years. I noticed the way women in Lagos treated one another: the cold stares, the lack of trust, the lack of collaboration. I wanted to understand why. Once I learned what Nigerian women were going through within such a strong patriarchy and then did the math on what we were losing as a nation because of it, I was eager to write a play about those topics. I began collecting true stories about women and the obstacles they faced daily. The issues reminded me of the first play I had seen in the US years earlier: Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. It was brilliant. Even though I wasn’t in theater at the time, I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to create something similar. Twenty years later and back in Nigeria, I shared these ideas about creating a play on gender issues with Joke Silva, a popular actress and friend. She immediately asked if I would consider directing The Vagina Monologues, which was to be produced in Lagos that year. I agreed. Those experiences and opportunities informed where I am now. 

How did for colored girls… influence you as a playwright?

It was fascinating to see the power of the monologues in the play: each woman represented a particular type of person, or personality. Shange assigned colors to each of the characters, and each color represented a sort of character type and life experience. I had never seen theater that melded dance, poetry, and drama in such an effective way. The stories were very intense, but the show was visually pretty in the choreography and the way the colors moved on stage. 

I also thought it was bold and brave for the writer to put her community out there like that, to expose its weaknesses within such a racially divided society. There’s often a reluctance to discuss bad things happening within the black community, because there’s already enough perceived negativity. So, with the US premiere of Hear Word! I was concerned that an American audience may feed into the same old negative rhetoric about Nigeria and, as such, be unable to connect with the universal story of gender inequality. It was important to make sure we shared the issues deeply and honestly, and yet also told a story of hope and empowerment. The play needed to speak to women about the potential that lay within them, within the global community of women: the potential to change the world. In Lagos, we premiered the show two weeks after the Chibok girls were abducted; it was powerful and necessary. 

Hear Word! is a story of hope even though we took the controversial stand of asking women where their responsibility lay in their own persecution. The show asks women where they are complacent and where they are enablers or gatekeepers to patriarchy. It demands that women play a part in the change and not wait for the government, aid organizations, or men to give us permission to excel, lead, and develop the world. 

How has the play been received in Nigeria?

Hear Word! has had a great reception. I am still surprised that it continues to draw an audience after three years. It was designed to be entertaining and inclusive even though the messages are direct. It is not your typical "angst-filled," "painful" piece of gender-issues performance art, because I didn’t want any audience member to escape by thinking they weren’t a part of this story. The characters are also from different ages, walks of life, parts of the country, and socio-economic classes. 

Additionally, although the show opened in an affuent part of town, we started getting the idea to bring it to a larger audience, so we took it to universities. We put speakers in the back of a truck and headed to markets and bus stops. It was very well received. In fact, the crowds would often participate in some of the pieces by joining in singing songs and responding loudly to the performance. At universities, there would actually be banter between male and female audience members. You know, you get a thousand students in a room, and it can be on fire. 

What does the phrase "hear word" mean?

"Hear word" is Nigerian Pidgin for “listen and obey.” Nigerians use it as a warning or threat to women and children, or to people with less advantage. Men will say “My wife no wan hear word,” meaning “My wife does not listen” or "When I slap am e go hear word,” meaning "when I slap her, he/she will listen.” Police use it when they stop to frisk public transport conductors or drivers, and people who can afford to have domestic staff often use it with their staff. So, what I wanted to do was to flip the script, you know, to say, “Listen and learn from what women have to say, because if we continue with the way things are going in this country, we will surely never progress.” 

Why is it important to perform Hear Word! in Cambridge now?

I believe that given what is going on in the world today, it’s almost like the entire world is spinning backwards in time. Gender inequality in America is back in the spotlight with sexual harassment, rape and the "culture of silence" on the front burners. Meanwhile, the US and some European governments are very busy alienating entire communities that have called America and Europe home. People are feeling threatened from all sides, and history tells us that the outcome of these conditions will not be good. Hear Word! can add its voice to the gender issues discussion; it can also contribute by offering insights into the lives of people from a very different culture or community. Although the play’s context is culturally quite diverse from mainstream America, the issues presented in the play are universal, and this allows for commonality between cultures. Common threads are shreds that are important for us to hold onto now. If you’re sitting in the dark, and there’s a light on somebody who’s telling you a true story, a real story, in a way that is intimate, you might just connect in an unexpected way. You might connect to an African woman in a way that you haven’t before, and this may begin to bridge a gap between two communities that usually pass in the night. It is also important to challenge common perceptions of what African women are capable of in terms of art, excellence, and contributions. It also shows Nigerians what is possible from Nigeria. 

HEAR WORD! Naija Woman Talk True runs January 26 - February 11, 2018. Click here for tickets.

Interview by Rebecca Curran, a dramaturgy student at the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University ('18).

 

 

Author:
Rebecca Curran
Publication date:
January 26, 2018
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