Producer, director, performer, writer, architect. Over the past two decades, Ifeoma Fafunwa has worn many hats searching for the ideal vehicle with which to marry her art with her deep concerns for the world. Two years ago, she found it with the ambitious, critically acclaimed Nigerian production “Hear Word! Naija Woman Talk True,” which she and a cast of 10 women are bringing to the Harvard Dance Center April 15-17 for its US premiere.
The show, presented by several Harvard University institutions and the American Repertory Theater, combines music, song, and dance with true stories of Nigerian women. It is both a call for change and a celebration of empowerment and transformation. The first half shines a light on some of the cultural, behavioral, and legal inequalities that oppress today’s Nigerian women — from the pressure to be married and harassment in the workplace to the shocking frequency of child brides, female circumcision, and rape. The second half celebrates women who have transcended limitations, breaking the culture of silence, and challenging the status quo.
Q. You are married with four children and live in Lagos, where you were born. But you left for 23 years. How did that change of perspective affect this production?
A. I left for many years in the States and traveled to Europe, then came back and became acutely aware of how secondary women were in [Nigerian] society. I started asking questions, and people started telling me their stories. I started to see a path, [examining] things like how do women support other women, how do mothers talk to daughters differently than sons, how does the pastor in the church talk to women. I discovered [women believe] the most important thing is to be married and have children. That compromises and devalues women. If a woman is a CEO of a company but is not married, her value, her status is diminished.
Q. Nigeria still fosters a society in which young men are raised to believe they are special and young women believe their role is to serve them. That starts with mothers, doesn’t it? How can this play change that?
A. We have had the most success in that area. Our repeat customers are women in their 40s who want their daughters to see the show, then drag their moms to the show. They are working out how they fit in their marriages. They may have taken a lot from their husbands thinking they have to [in order] to make the marriage work, and they want their moms and their daughters involved in the discussion. Next thing they bring their husbands. Last year we had about 50 percent male attendance. I think the show is a place where people can have a discussion without having a discussion, because women are not trained to talk that way to men.
Q. What do you hope men take away from the play?
A. That every action has an equal or opposite reaction. Nigerian men don’t think that what they do has any effect on women or that [women] want to serve, want to submit. What has happened, which is tied into the culture of silence, is so much protection of the male ego. Men sometimes don’t really know the trail of destruction they leave behind, don’t think “Every action I take may have an effect on my daughter or the young woman I am sleeping with or the woman I rape or the child I molest.”
Q.You’ve said the show’s mission is “to empower and inspire Nigerian women to move beyond societal limitations and contribute to creating a better world.” Have you seen evidence of this over the past two years you’ve been presenting the show?
A. I have seen evidence of women moving beyond barriers in surprising ways, moving out of homes because of the show, starting dialogues with questions they never would have asked before, like how can I live alone, which is unheard of for a young woman. Creating a better world will take time. But coming out from Nigeria, standing on a stage in front of the world and putting out something positive is already changing the way the world views African women and their possible contributions. It challenges stereotypes, pushes the bar in some small way.
Q. Surprisingly, humor is an important element in the show.
A. Yes. Nigeria is one of the most corrupt nations in the world. Things are extremely difficult, with institutions in complete decay, the police, the army. For the same reason religion is thriving and people love Nollywood films and comedians are some of the highest-paid entertainers, people need to escape from how difficult things are. When I was writing and directing, I wanted people to listen in way that their subconscious was also listening. The story may be horrific, but little nuances, the cultural subtext as well as the humor allow the viewer to relax in and not feel threatened or uncomfortable. Then they get the message and they go home and it’s inside.
Q. Do you think this play translates to other cultures?
A. I’m trying to create parallels and empathy, [so audiences] see similarities between the Nigerian man who sexually offers his wife up to honor a senior visitor and the man who is meeting with a bigwig and tells his wife to wear the nice black cocktail dress and smile a lot. I’m hoping we can draw some mutual respect from these different cultures. Let’s just build a bridge, let’s understand our world a little better and look for common ground. I think where the world is going now with so much immigration and tension, that is a strong place to be telling a strong story that is universal as well as unique.
HEAR WORD! NAIJA WOMAN TALK TRUE
At Harvard Dance Center, Cambridge, April 15-17.
Tickets: $15-$25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.