By Donna Herman
I love The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. I always find a performance I have never seen or heard that I wind up falling in love with and following the creators. I had expected to be emotionally affected by Ifeoma Fafunwa’s Hear Word! Naija Women Talk True but my physical reaction was surprising. I kept getting full body flushes and goosebumps throughout the 90-minute piece, until they were sustained for the last 30 minutes. I’ve seen a lot of theater in my days and I’ve never had that kind of reaction.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised though. Hear Word! Naija Women Talk True is a brutally honest look at the issues affecting Nigerian women across all levels of society that spares no punches. But it manages to be both incendiary and inspirational, joyous and heartbreaking yet in the end, triumphant. It is infused with the indomitable life force that gave rise to mankind – for good or ill. And while there’s no mistaking that Fafunwa is specifically writing about women in Nigeria, it is impossible for it not to reverberate with women all over the globe.
As both playwright and director, Fafunwa has carefully crafted Hear Word! Naija Women Talk True so that the audience is taken on a specific journey. From recognition to empathy, to identification. From laughter to sadness to grief as a human face appears on news stories we’ve read. The first piece “Touch” is a brief vignette by three young women describing their uneasiness in situations that could take place anywhere in the world – an office, a crowded bus, a city street. That sixth sense that says that something you felt was not benign or accidental.
There are a lot of women’s issues explored in Hear Word! Naija Women Talk True. Like the sexual abuse of clergy to women in their congregations, child marriage, rape and the stigma attached to it, and the abuse of widows and young girls. There’s polygamy, deep cultural traditions regarding women’s place in society and the home, and their acceptance and complicity in maintaining and accepting those traditions as unchangeable.
But what also shows up is the emerging resistance by the women of Nigeria against this systemic mistreatment. From the Queen of the marketplace who wouldn’t allow her dead husband’s relatives to take over the businesses she built while he sat around, to the young girl whose family was tricked into sending her to Italy to become part of a sex trafficking racket who managed to call the police and get away. To Sister Esther, the “church-going, bible-carrying, tongue-speaking sister” who goes around talking to church groups about the glory of sex and how she discovered that it was a gift from God and He should be praised for it. Hallelujah!
Ifeoma Fafunwa and the immeasurably talented cast of Nigerian actresses take you on a journey in Hear Word! Naija Women Talk True. Sometimes you are slowly winding your way along the river, reveling in the colors and sounds of territory that is at once novel and familiar. Then the skies darken, and the wind starts howling and the boat starts rocking. Thunder roars and lightning strikes and the familiar, comfortable feeling you have always relied on that your feet are on the ground and you know where the next step will take you is gone. And then it stops. And a blinding sun comes out and the birds start singing, and the earth stops trembling and you are alive! And everyone around you is shouting and laughing and singing and clapping. There’s nothing like travel to broaden your horizons.
Hear Word! Naija Women Talk True Written and Directed by Ifeoma Fafunwa
PERCUSSIONISTS: Emeka Anokwuru, Blessing Idireri
Costume Designer, Ituen Basi; Lighting Designer, Aja M. Jackson; Projection Designer, Jonathan Carr. Presented by The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival and iOpen Eye in association with the American Repertory Theater. Final performance Monday January 7, 2019 at The Public Theater. For tickets visit: www.publictheater.org.