Stories of abuse and resistance in ‘Hear Word! Naija Woman Talk True’
CAMBRIDGE — There are no male performers in the ensemble of “Hear Word! Naija Woman Talk True,’’ but men are nonetheless a constant — and malign — presence.
“Hear Word!’’ was inspired by the real-life experiences of Nigerian women, including some in the 10-member cast. As they recount and enact story after story of women who have been on the receiving end of male entitlement, aggression, and abuse, “Hear Word!’’ inexorably adds up to a damning portrait of toxic masculinity — and, ultimately, a call for female solidarity and empowerment.
Whether performing solo or as an ensemble, all 10 actresses (veterans of stage and screen in Nigeria) deliver vibrantly committed performances at the Loeb Drama Center under the direction of Ifeoma Fafunwa, who cowrote the script. The 100-minute, intermissionless production is being presented by the American Repertory Theater in association with Fafunwa’s iOpenEye, a Nigerian production company whose stated aim is to help bring about social change through performance.
That goal notwithstanding, “Hear Word!’’ largely remains rooted in the particulars of individual experience rather than registering as a tract, which helps propel the production past some predictable and repetitive patches. Fafunwa and her collaborators are rigorously clear-eyed about the challenges women face, in Nigeria and elsewhere.
Some of those challenges come from other women, the production makes clear: “Hear Word!’’ includes scenes in which females help enforce restrictive social codes by, for instance, harshly criticizing the way other women dress or laugh, or reacting in collective horror to a woman who goes to lunch with a male colleague.
There are women depicted in “Hear Word!’’ who cannot overcome the stacked deck of sexist assumptions and behavior that they encounter from husbands, boyfriends, family members, and neighbors. But there are others who resist, fighting back against the oppressive men in their lives, and, more broadly, against a deeply patriarchal system that is working overtime to keep them down. In a vignette titled “Family Meeting,’’ a woman portrayed by Omonor (who goes by one name) describes how she was beaten by her husband and asked “What did you do wrong?’’ by her father-in-law. But the wife takes very direct action against her husband.
Late in the show, it registers as a stirring call to arms when the actress Deborah Ohiri, drawing from a Yoruba chant titled “It’s Enough,’’ cries: “Step up! Stand for! Speak out! Accept nothing less — It is time for change!’’
Obviously, those hortatory words carry an echo of the current #MeToo and Time’s Up movements against sexual assault and harassment, underscoring the degree to which “Hear Word!,’’ which was presented locally two years ago in a limited run at the Harvard Dance Center, could scarcely be more timely.
Fafunwa grew up in Nigeria and returned to that African nation after living in the United States for two decades. She and her cowriters have structured “Hear Word!’’ as a series of monologues and vignettes, periodically punctuated by defiant or joyous song and dance (several percussionists are seated on the right side of the stage). The subject matter of some vignettes is suggested by their titles: “Woman Trafficking,’’ “Child Bride,’’ “The Good Wife,’’ “Aseowo (Prostitute).’’
The show’s opening focus is on women and girls who are sexually harassed at work (“I didn’t feel safe, and I really needed the job,’’ says one woman), subjected to verbal harassment on the street, groped by a male passenger on a bus. What other women experience in “Hear Word!’’ is worse (the production is recommended for audiences 14 and over).
At play’s end, “Hear Word!’’ makes dramatically clear that it is our collective responsibility to change the grim picture it presents. Certainly the unstoppable woman portrayed by Omonor in an earlier vignette titled “Unlimited Potential’’ is doing her part, declaring: “I reject all limitations placed on my life’s expectation/ I have a vital contribution to my nation’s transformation/ I am a force, a tidal wave, and I won’t hide/ My destiny is not for you to decide.’’
HEAR WORD! NAIJA WOMAN TALK TRUE
Directed by Ifeoma Fafunwa. Written by Fafunwa, Tunde Aladese, Mojisola Ajibola, Wole Oguntokun, Princess Olufemi-Kayode, and Ijeoma Ogwuegbu. Presented by American Repertory Theater in association with iOpenEye. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through Feb. 11. Tickets from $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org