Over the weekend, hundreds of theatre lovers streamed into Abuja’s Transcorp Hilton for the staging of the much talked-about play, Hear Word! It ended up saying far more than the producers intended. Daily Trust reviews the performance.
‘Hear Word! Naija Women Talk True’ is a feminist play. That would be the impression of most people who have seen it. That was my first impression when I saw it at the Ake Arts and Book Festival in Abeokuta last November. And it will be the impression most people would leave Abuja’s Transcorp Hilton with after the performance debuted in the capital. But is it really?
Core feminists will argue and have argued that it’s not, or at the very least, it is not feminist enough, or it distorts feminism, and they would have reasons for saying so. After all, it is really a matter of perspective.
Some people will even argue that it is not even a play, but a performance, a social commentary delivered with the accompanying theatrical aplomb and spectacle.
Directed by the brilliant Ifeoma Fafunwa, ‘Hear Word,’ unlike a typical play, does not have a single plotline running through. It doesn’t even have conventional scenes; say like in Soyinka’s ‘The Lion and the Jewel’. What it has is 23 sequences, opening with “Chibok Girls” and closing with “A Community Fails.” Each sequence addresses different women issues, from parental expectations, the expectations of conservative mother in-laws on their sons’ wives, to the treatment of widows in society. As would be expected, child marriage and VVF featured.
Fafunwa’s brilliance behind the scenes is showcased on stage by the brilliance of her 10 actors, all of them women of artistic pedigree. Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Joke Silva, Bimbo Akintola, Elvina Ibru, Omonor, Ufuoma Mcdermott, Zara Udofia Ejoh, Rita Edward, Odenike and Debora Ohiri. The women oozed passion and discipline on stage and through their performances and lines spoke to the audience, captivating them all the way through.
Which brings us to the question of who this play is really directed at? Who is it speaking to? Well, those who expected a play dealing with women issues and featuring an all-woman cast would be disappointed by the dosage of men-bashing. It is fantastically underwhelming.
Fafunwa did not set out to denigrate men and condemn them as the root of all issues plaguing women. The play for the most part, addressed the women themselves; the women who expect their sons’ wives to be as malleable as the fufu they make captured by Omonor in the sequence ‘Dis My Pikin Wife’ or the parents who are never emotionally present for their daughters, brought succinctly to the forefront by the baby-faced Odenike in ‘Dodo’ or the pressures mothers place on their daughters, brilliantly captured in Elvina Ibru and Joke Silva’s monologues in ‘Azuka and Temilola’
In these sequences, and in many more, what is clear is that the play is an indictment on women. The subjugation of women is only possibly with the active agency of other women and their liberation will only be possible with the active participation of women themselves.
But beyond a series of lamentations, ‘Hear Word!’ is also a war cry. This was amply demonstrated by Debbie Ohiri’s Yoruba chant, which ushered in the second segment of the play, the upbeat part, the part where the women stood up and fought against oppression and subjugation.
Cue in Joke Silva’s performance as the title character in the ‘Iyaloja’ sequence. A successful business woman losing her property to her husband’s relative is nothing new, but Iyaloja didn’t take it lying down, she fought back with gusto and intellect and she won, not only the fight for her wealth but the audiences’ euphoric approval as well.
In the sequence, ‘Woman Trafficking’ Zarah Udofia-Ejoh’s character discovered she is trafficked to be a sex slave in Europe. She did not give in but took a militant stand. A bold and encouraging statement, one that should go a long way in encouraging the girls who find themselves enslaved for sex in foreign countries, only if it were that easy, to say ‘I am not doing this, I am not taking this’, as her character did. The reality is different though but what Hear Word! does is to encourage these victims to know that they form the first line of defence, or defiance, in the face of this monumental scourge and national shame.
Expectedly, the men are not spared, even if they are not tongue-lashed to the extent that some would have expected. In ‘Family Meeting’ Omonor brings her brilliance to the role of the battered house wife who defended herself by grabbing her husband’s privates, something the community queried, but not the fact that she was battered.
“…but what you did is not natural,” the husband’s relatives said, after explaining why a man beating his woman is natural.
The battered woman, who refused to roll over and die, threatened to do it again should her husband beat her again, finally eliciting the needed reaction from the family members who finally agreed to talk to their son.
But beyond the stage, the play indicted many. The fact that a play as fascinating as this was staged at the Transcorp’s Congress Hall is an indictment on the culture sector. The Congress Hall is not a theatre. And the fact that Abuja, Nigeria’s shiny new capital, does not have a befitting theatre to host a play like this is a slap in the face of the city’s developers. Frankly, every city in the world worth its salt has a theatre, if not a bevy of them. How else do you have a cultured people?
The lack of a theatre manifested in the lack of theatre decorum exhibited by some members of the audience. From the moment Debbie Ohiri appeared on stage to render the National Anthem, the reaction of a section of the audience suggested there might be a problem.
This lack of decorum peaked when a section of the audience, for whatever reason, found the Sequence ‘Dodo’, where a teenager is recounting how she was sexually abused by her sister’s fiancé, funny. How? The occasional snickers during the play as a whole may be tolerable (I mean the play is serious but it is also really funny) but anyone capable of finding amusement in such a sequence – and yes, most of them were women; I did look – is uncultured and has questionable human values. And to think this of the usually posh Abuja dwellers is just sad.
But nothing topped the Gothic behaviour of the security attachés of the political figures, or the wives of political figures, who came to watch the play, or perhaps just to make their presence known. When security personnel stand in the aisles, preventing people with genuine interest in the play from seeing what they came to see, having paid really good money for it, for that matter, is an indictment. The fact that they impeded the free flow of the production, getting in the way of the production crew, fiddling over sitting arrangement was simply appalling.
The fact that a corporate body, like Etisalat, took it upon itself to bankroll the play and travel with it around the country is an encouragement for the creative sector. Hopefully, Nigeria’s theatre will not die the death of a stray dog.
But despite the rowdiness at the onset, with regards to admission into the venue, and the technical hitches with the lights being miscued well into the play, something I don’t recall happening with the production at Ake, in the end, the art triumphed. ‘Hear Word!’ is a scintillating and evocative performance, one that gives you a reason why you should act and the courage to do so. One that you should see again and again!
(First published in Daily Trust, May 15, 2016)