Three women stare out at the audience. One describes a trip to the market to buy fish. The seller reaches out to take her hand. Needlessly; she doesn’t know him. She is frightened and runs home to tell her mum. Another describes a trip on a packed bus. A man brushes against her. Is he trying to grope her, she wonders? Or is he just adjusting his fingers? So kicks off a fast, often funny though always angry, series of real-life stories about discrimination – some casual and others very deliberate – meted out to women in Hear Word!
Choreographed as beautifully as a piece of dance, Ifeoma Fafunwa‘s production reins in its rage, settling instead for a relentless drumbeat of score-settling, perfectly picked out by Blessing Idireri‘s percussion. A community can’t behave like this if it wants to remain a community, the women chorus at the end of the piece. We ought not accept these limitations on our expectations. Performed by 10 household names from Nigeria, the actors serve up some standout performances. Zara Udofia-Ejoh‘s matter-of-fact relating of her fate following her husband’s death is appalling, while Odenike‘s description of her punishment when she refuses to rush to fetch her uncle some fried plantain is heart-breaking.
It’s not an unmitigated catalogue of misery and man-bashing. The women who chastise their daughters for not snaring a man early doors and settling down to produce a series of male children (for only boys are acceptable) get their fair share of criticism. And it’s acknowledged that women can, when the circumstances are right, control their own destiny. Joke Silva‘s Queen Of The Market monologue is a riotous celebration of a woman who means business, Ufuoma McDermott‘s delight when she discovers Jehovah is delicious, and the legendary actress Taiwo Ajai-Lycett delivers a majestic call to womankind.
It’s important to set this show in its cultural context. Such revelations – particularly the radical notion that women might enjoy sex – will have caused considerable ripples in such a patriarchal society. For an International Festival audience, it’s the casual violence and persistent pigeon-holing of women’s ambitions that is more shocking.
Yet the final battle cry for respect and an equal chance to change is universal. Hear Word! is Nigerian pidgin English for ‘Listen and Comply’. Let’s hope the world does.