Photo: A scene from the play
‘Hear Word! is performed in a series of episodic monologues that range from ‘Touch,’ ‘Dodo,’ ‘Black widow’ to ‘VVF’ and many more. It’s about how men and society view women as objects that answer to every one of their needs, whether willingly or not. And there lies the problem, why women are crying out in performances like Hear Word!, why they demand to be properly treated as human beings deserving of respect, beings whose opinions should always be sought first before any decision is made that affects them.’
WHEN America’s Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues came to Lagos some years ago with its seemingly bare-bottom approach to canvasing women’s struggles and to force society to look at itself in the mirror, some theatre-goers felt somewhat uncomfortable. Women’s issues had never been approached with such bare-it-all candour that was even somewhat exhibitionist. Some modern-day grandmothers of the Abrahamic faiths squirmed at the audacity of it; that perhaps there are subtler ways of tackling such vexing issues without going to the extreme as Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues does.
However, the play opened a new vista for local theatre practitioners to play up similar disturbing practices against women. They therefore set out to canvas the complex issues that exist in man-woman relationships, whether as boyfriend-girlfriend, husband-wife or the wider social reckoning, with the many prohibitive dos-and-don’ts ranged against womenfolk.
One early response was Wole Oguntokun’s The Tarzan Monologues. Apparently, men also are on the receiving end and that they also cry. But how does society view men’s struggles? And are women not part of those magnifying men’s problems, as Ensler’s play does for women?
But it is Ifeoma Fafunwa who has seemingly localised Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues in her explosive play, Hear Word! Naija Women Talk True. While Ensler’s take may be viewed as Western and cosmopolitan in approach to women’s stories, Fafunwa has localised it within the African milieu, such that the market woman and woman farmer in remote villages could see herself reflect in it and even personalise it to their own daily experiences, and become wiser in the process.
That has also informed how Hear Word! has been performed in workshop-style fashion among local women in their own mother tongues (local languages) to avoid any ambiguity in understanding the play’s intended message. One such innovative performance venue was at the popular Oshodi bus stop/market and Makoko in the heart of Lagos, so the play’s central message of empowering women and giving voice to their struggles could be brought home and amplified as concerns of universal import to all women.
So, what exactly are women’s issues and how do men and society generally (including fellow women) conspire to undermine and undo women in their daily experiences? What are the daily struggles that women undergo in order to gain a foothold in today’s society? Sexual molestation or harassment of women at home, in the office by persons and everywhere possible by those who hold some advantage over them, child and early marriage and its associated complications, not least is the dreaded Vesico-Vagina fistula (VVF), and wicked widowhood rites in some African societies that strip women of their humanity and hold them accountable for their husbands’ death.
These are among the many instances of injustices meted out to women on account of their sex. Hear Word! Therefore, sensitises society to its duty to protect female-folks from these male-instituted acts that criminalise and humiliate women for no fault of theirs.
Hear Word! boasts of A-list performers such as Dame Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Joke Silver, Oluchi Odii, Ufuoma McDermott, Zara Udofia-Ejoh, Debbie Ohiri, Elvina Ibru, Omonor Somolu, Mofe Okorodudu, Uchechika Elumelu, and Ejiro Asagba, among others. This power-packed performance cast members enact the play as a campaign performance tool designed to change men and society’s attitudes and mindsets about how to relate with women and see their issues as men’s issues as well as for society’s wellbeing.
A few instances from the play will suffice how women navigate the delicate balance between retaining their sanity and how they relate with men and the larger society.
Hear Word! is performed in a series of episodic monologues that range from ‘Touch,’ ‘Dodo,’ ‘Black widow’ to ‘VVF’ and many more. It’s about how men and society view women as objects that answer to every one of their needs, whether willingly or not. And there lies the problem, why women are crying out in performances like Hear Word!, why they demand to be properly treated as human beings deserving of respect, beings whose opinions should always be sought first before any decision is made that affects them.
A 14-year old girl (Oluchi Odii) who runs on an errand to buy fish for her mother finds herself being molested by a certain young man near the fish seller who is in the habit of holding her hand and teasing her in an amorous way that she finds too uncomfortable for her liking. She vows not to go on errands to that market again for fear of the young man who touches her and makes advances to her. For another woman, it’s a man sitting close to her who brushes his hand against her breasts. At first she dismisses it as an innocent mistake. But then it happens again, and she is wondering if she should challenge the man when it happens again a third time. An elderly lady beside her assures her it’s a mistake even when she is convinced it’s not`.
These are the some of the molestations that young women go through in full view of everyone who either cheer the acts on or jeer at the women in such uncomfortable situations. It could be the boss in the office touching a young employee inappropriately and she has no defense against it.
The questions are: Why would a stranger behave that badly to a woman he meets on a bus by touching her breasts? What gives him that sense of entitlement to demean the lady the way he does? What laws are there to protect that lady from public groping she is made to suffer and endure? If she were to raise alarm, would society not rail against her for crying wolf where there’s none? Wouldn’t she be accused of dressing provocatively to justify the man’s bad behaviour? Who or what protects a woman against such effrontery?
Within family circles, it’s even worse for young girls whose vulnerability is always exploited by unscrupulous relatives. A 12 years old girl (Oluchi Odii) finds herself being molested by her auntie’s fiance when he comes calling and her auntie is not home. He not only commands the poor girl to serving him inappropriate things like alcohol, he nettles her in the toilet in a bid to have his way with her. It’s the sad and tragic situation of most young girls who are molested daily. Sadly, no one believes their stories of sexual molestation in the hands of people who should protect them, who often threaten them into silence. The mere physical touch as she struggles to free herself from the amorous grip of her auntie’s fiance invokes in her all unimaginable fears that could assail a 12-year old girl. All her pleas to the uncle falls on deaf ears. Mother had explained to her that mere physical touch from a man could result in pregnancy. Now she is convinced her life has come undone by the uncle’s touch, as pregnancy is sure to result. What would she tell the world happened to her? Her trauma is real and she wails her tragedy to the wide world to hear her plight.
But it’s not all gloom and doom for women though. Stories of emancipation and women empowerment and enlightenment (Taiwo Ajai-Lycett) also abound in the performance.
Elderly women who have seen it all also tell their stories as sources of encouragement to younger women to not give up on their quest but stand up for a just society that takes women’s issues into account. These elderly women encourage other women that they have roles to play in educating society against some of these negative practices that undermine women. Also, the challenge for modern women is to raise good boys who will grow into men who will defend their women in future, so women coming up do not fall into the same deadly traps as their mothers and grandmothers.
Fafunwa is a thorough professional who has endeared many to stage performances with the quality of her productions, as a producer and director. Her cast of performers is always on the high end that gives her incredible stage results.
Odii shows immense promise in Hear Word! Naija Women Talk True, as in other productions, as a rising star to watch in future. Her scenes portray the plight of young girls in a patriarchal society, girls who swim against strong tides, as they navigate an environment littered with so many banana peels. Her performance is topnotch; her scenes make passionate appeals and tug at the human heart and that of society to behave justly and sensibly toward young women who will be tomorrow’s wives and mothers.
It is hoped that Hear Word! will also hit the stage at Easter 2023 as it did in December 2022, so its message keeps resonating in remote as well as urban centres.
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