by Wilfred Okiche
This weekend, the buzzy play Hear Word made a triumphant return to the stage at the Muson Centre, Lagos in what can now be considered an annual tradition.
Directed by iOpenEye’s Ifeoma Fafunwa, and populated by an all-female cast that consists of some of the finest actresses of stage and screen, this year’s revival of Hear Word is led by veteran Joke Silva but also features mainstays like Bimbo Akintola, Ufuoma McDermott, Omonor and Zara Udofia-Ejoh who reprise roles they have played in previous iterations.
Hear Word begins with a bang and does not quite let up.
In the course of two hours and 23 sequences, the play runs through the gamut of experiences that come with living as a female in Nigeria. It is in turns political, spiritual, sexual and emotional.
Hear Word’s first ace is in its recognition of the flawed makeup of humanity. Having gotten this out of the way, the play finds room to accommodate the good, bad and ugly. Not suitable for kids, Hear Word refuses to shy away from using salty language and places the flexible bodies of the actresses front and centre to paint several portraits that hold several mirrors up to society. Sound, music and lighting are used effectively to uncover the pain that lies beneath.
There is a lot of pain.
There are individual solos where each actress gets her shine time and there are group pieces that split the glory evenly. All of them pack a punch. Some are uneven. Most are unforgettable.
The experience is split into three acts. The first is an indictment of women in the maltreatment and denigration of their fellows. In Girl Child, Bimbo Akintola finds out the hard way, from her husband’s female relatives that having a child is a blessing but only when the child is male.
The phenomenal Omonor isn’t impressed by her modern daughter in-law in My Pikin wife, a funny but tragic look at patriarchy systems through the eyes of an oppressed female while Ashewo is biting commentary that unlocks how women unleash the title word as weapon to undermine the achievements of their peers. A woman who sits atop a corporate empire is an ashewo reporting for duty, ditto the one who takes a walk with her male colleague, and so is the Nollywood actress with the failed marriage. The woman whose husband brings her breakfast in bed after years of marriage however? That one is a witch.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, it is the sad situation that many a woman has been boxed into by unfair societal demands.
The most problematic part of Hear Word, and the one that has given the play a reputation – unfairly too – for man bashing is tucked in the mid-portion. Here the men are the big baddies and the themes run the gamut from rape to religion as cover for sexual abuse and emotional abuse.
All heavy stuff.
These skits pulverize the unsuspecting audience, one after the other, in quick succession. Multiple sighs are heaved, tears flow too and by the time Debbie Ohiri kicks off the Yoruba chant that is the play’s version of I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-it-anymore, the audience is ready for release.
This release comes in the form of Ms Silva as Iyaloja, visibly empowered to fend off greedy relatives that circle her husband’s corpse. She gets a resounding applause and loud whoops for her efforts. Ufuoma McDermott scores some too for her now classic interpretation of Sister Esther with the voracious sexual appetite. And Omonor gives every woman who has suffered physical violence at the hands of a man some small victory when she calls for a pivotal Family Meeting.
Hear Word’s politics are pretty clear. It is unafraid to take a feminist stand but the writers are woke enough to understand that both genders are equal offenders and as such, it must take equal partnership to uplift the Nigerian woman. Every party has to accept their blame and strive towards being better, doing better.
Scripted from recordings of real life stories and experiences of Nigerian women, Hear Word should be required viewing for every adult human being. Ifeoma Fafunwa has once again amplified the voices of these invisible Nigerian women.
It is now left for as many of us to hear word.