Neil Cooper

Ifeoma Fafunwa was 14 years old when she first fell in love with theatre. That was when the future creator and director of Hear Word! Naija Woman Talk True, which opens next week as part of Edinburgh International Festival’s You Are Here strand, was at secondary school in Nigeria. It might have been the same institution where her mother taught, but it was another teacher who opened her eyes to the possibilities of performing.

“There was an Irish priest who put on Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat,” says Fafunwa today. “He did things like Ipi Tombi, and I just thought, wow. From then on, theatre was something I always wanted to do, but I didn’t have the courage, because I was expected to do other things. I got into architecture because it was the closest thing to art.”

By the time she was sixteen, Fafunwa had moved to New York, and it was here she had her next theatrical epiphany by way of radical American writer Ntozake Shange’s debut play, For Coloured Girls Who Have Committed Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. Shange’s play was a mixture of monologue, dance and music she defined as a ‘choreopoem’, and which focused on seven women who have been oppressed in a racist and sexist society.

“I loved how brave it was,” says Fafunwa. “It was the first real theatre I saw when I moved to America, and it made me love it. It was commenting on patriarchy in the African American community in a really bold way, and it was putting people down who needed to be put down.”

If Shange’s play introduced Fafunwa to a theatrical aesthetic a long way from the school musicals back in Nigeria, it was another thirty years before she acted on it. This came about after she saw a production of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler’s globally acclaimed evocation of the female experience, which similarly used monologue and direct address to entertain while saying something serious.

Today, Fafunwa is the artistic head of of iOpenEye, a theatre company which has shaken up the Nigerian arts scene with Hear Word!, which brings together ten of Nigeria’s best-known actresses in a taboo-busting mash-up of female solidarity borne out of a volatile patriarchal country.

“I wanted to do something that was entertaining,” Fafunwa says. “I wanted it to be funny, and I wanted men to be able to feel comfortable watching it, and to have fun. I didn’t want it to be this big angst-ridden feminist statement. It starts very light, with women gossiping at the water fountain about who’s getting married and who has kids, and it’s a lot of fun. Then it goes into more serious issues, about rape, and sex trafficking, and the play becomes more intense.

“What we end up with is a piece that talks a lot about women as gate-keepers as much as victims, and how women are complicit in some of the awful things that are going on in Nigeria, and that became something very powerful.”

With a lack of theatrical infrastructure in Nigeria in terms of venues and funding, it was left to Fafunwa to get Hear Word! onstage herself. In the last five years, however, Fafunwa says the audience for plays in Nigeria has grown. This may be largely down to Hear Word!, which was a success from the moment it opened.

“By the third week we had a line outside the theatre every night,” she says. “Since then, some people have seen it up to as many as nine times, and it’s become a cult.”

Hear Word! ran for a year in Nigeria, and in 2016, was picked up by two visiting performers from Harvard University. They brought it to America, presenting it at a small university theatre, where it was spotted by American Repertory Theater, who subsequently came on board with what is now an international hit.

Outside of this, Fafunwa produced work at the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, as well as being seen at LIFT, London’s festival of new theatre and at Tate Modern. There are other projects pending, although a project on the LGBTQ community is unlikely to be performed in Nigeria, where homophobia is rife.

In the meantime, the power of Hear Word! prevails.

“I can only say I believe it works,” Fafunwa says of her play’s success, “and that’s just because of the audience’s response. People have come up and said they’ve started a different kind of relationship with their daughter or whatever, and for people to come and see it again and again five or seven times suggests something transformative is going on, and that people are really experiencing something.”

The fact as well that the play is travelling outside Nigeria changes how African women are being perceived by the rest of the world.

“The play is dealing with some very difficult things,” says Fafunwa, “and it shows how women can be gate-keepers of the patriarchy. They are putting the wood inside the fire. They’re the ones giving up their daughters for sex trafficking rings. They’re the ones circumcising their daughters.

“I wanted to show how women are part of this. To put ten strong Nigerian women onstage who aren’t hiding anything, but who are saying this is a problem we have, and we’re going to deal with it, that’s a very strong image.”

Hear Word! Naija Woman Talk True, Edinburgh International Festival @ The Lyceum, August 19, 22, 23, 8pm-9.15pm; August 24, 25, 4pm-5.15pm.