Nigeria theatre is going through a much-needed revival. There are individuals who have championed this renaissance including Ifeoma Fafunwa with her signature play, Hear Word. Her creativity has been expressed across a range of different media including advertising, architecture, interior design, film and of course, theatre. Her theatrical career in Nigeria began when Joke Silva asked her to direct the Vagina Monologues. Fafunwa agreed and to cut a long story short, it was well received. The Vagina Monologues comprised of great acting, clear direction and powerful storytelling. Fafunwa further explored the narrative of the Nigerian woman’s experience. This was no simple task seeing that the Nigerian experience is far from homogenous. The life of a Nigerian woman in Lagos is very different to a woman living in Borno. Experiences differ based on the following: religion, tribe and socio-economic status. Upon viewing Hear Word last December, I became aware of the binding element that pertains to all Nigerian women – ‘pressure’. Whether you live in Lagos or Borno, every Nigerian woman experiences pressure. The pressure to marry, to look a certain way, to behave a certain way, pressure from parents, pressure from work and everywhere. It would be unfair to characterise Hear Word as a tale of Nigerian women’s woes.
While watching the play there were narratives of victimisation and helplessness but also stories of resilience and triumph. Hear Word urges both men and women not to perpetuate pressure and expectations upon women. Fafunwa’s play has been in high demand since it’s debut. It has returned periodically over three years to sold out audiences. There is a simple reason for this: it is a well-written play and it resonates with its audience. In regards to theatre in Nigeria, there has been a sharp increase of participation over the last few years, thanks to the efforts of theatre producers such as Bolanle Austen-Peters, Lala Akindoju, Joke Silva and more. Furthermore, the recently concluded annual Lagos Theatre Festival that took place in February, continues to generate awareness and draw new audiences to theatre. The future may be bright for theatre but Hear Word continues to shine. In April it will leave the shores of Nigeria and sail across the Atlantic to the USA. Hear Word has been invited to perform in Harvard and Yale University. The play will further travel to Europe and then it will return home for performances in Abuja. This is a testament to the importance of supporting and investing in all facets of Nigerian culture. Music and film have been the leaders in cultural exportation but theatre refuses to be left behind. Fafunwa, in this interview shares her longing for the vibrant theatre she experienced as a child in Nigeria. This longing led her to create Hear Word. She also talk about her difficult journey of putting the play together plus her unique perspective of gender dynamics in Nigeria
What has been the most interesting response to Hear Word?
What was interesting for me was when I started seeing people come back with their siblings, mothers and spouses. For one of the shows a group of ninety-year old women attended. The diversity of the audience was encouraging.
You are an artist who has worked with different media, what lead you to theatre?
Initially I was interested in acting, by day I worked in an architectural firm in Los Angeles and at the weekends I would audition for film roles. The roles I was cast in were not particularly deep. This led me to directing, I started telling stories about things that were African and creating strong roles. I would direct myself and other people. When I moved back to Nigeria I transitioned back to architecture because there was a lot of on-going building and development. In my free time I would go to plays and they were not well attended. My interest in plays was to push the art form forward. People like Joke Silva and Bolanle Austen-Peters and myself are trying to make it a respected art form like it was in the sixties.
The creative industry has many challenges, particularly sustainability, how are you able to make your work sustainable? Do you have any new play planned?
I don’t think I am able to accomplish what I want. I spend time trying to raise money and coordinating the technical aspects. I think that my plays could be twice as good if I had adequate support. There is no government support, there are no grants. For the arts as a whole there is not enough corporate support so it is still very difficult. I have another play I want to produce but it is about raising the funds. I am doing the administrative and marketing. This leaves little time for creative pursuits. When I have the necessary support I will do another play.
Slowly but surely more of the corporate sector support various arms of the arts. What is the best way for government to support the creative sector?
The government just has to make a decision and see it through. There are many ways they can intervene, through education, infrastructure and also financing. They just have to make the decision.
It’s International Women’s Month and you have done a lot of work in merging the theatre with social messages particularly women’s rights’ by directing the Vagina Monologues and Hear Word. Please tell us about the two projects
There is a slight overlap between both plays, they are both a collection of monologues but the Vagina Monologues focuses on violence against women. Hear Word is about a wider spectrum of women’s experiences in Nigeria.
When I came back to Nigeria after living 23 years in the US. I observed the lack of solidarity between women and more so if you are unmarried. I wanted to understand it, why is it there? The way in which women themselves oppress other women and the way it exists.
In the West they talk about gender issues, they talk about equality in the workplace. In Nigeria, women were earning their own money long before their western counterparts. It is not a matter of pay, there is the violence but women themselves are violent towards other women in this culture, even physically violent. This is a whole new area of oppression. In Hear Word you can see what is universal and bust also unique to West Africa.
Do you think that there is a similar gender specific oppression with men?
Yes, but it is a recent development, that came out of oil. In traditional African culture there is a respect for all professions. Those traditional values are dying off, being replaced by a man who stands on the corner and throws $100 notes at parties. There was a time that kind of behaviour was unacceptable. It is something that bothers me. Perhaps in the future, I will work on the end of traditional values and the impact of colonial values.
Men are suffering from ‘bigmanship’; they have bought into this idea that women are looking for a name. This comes from an old traditional value, the name was not about money, it was about the moral fibre of the family and perhaps their social impact. They didn’t need to be particularly wealthy. Money is a recent development. Nigeria changed with oil and the advent of corruption. Due to corruption there is massive unemployment, massive poverty, the rundown of education and general lack of infrastructure.
But at the same time you would hear stories of men with suitcases full of dollars. As a woman you attach yourself to a man with money, because in Nigeria men are given all kinds of freedom. A man can combine the traditional value of a man being able to have as many women as they want with idea that women are looking for money.
Why is it that a woman is making as much money or earning money looking after the kids and the house is still taking crap from a man? This is not a generalisation but let’s not pretend that this doesn’t happen.
What is the alternative? Culturally, a single woman is easily ostracised, it is not something most women want to endure.
Traditionally Nigerian women are made to believe that their biggest goal is to marry and have children. They are deemed failures because they haven’t married and had kids. It’s not the man himself; it’s the position of being a married woman. It is a myth. It is an illusion, if a wife with a good job, asks what can this guy bring to the table? She might find out she may be better off without him. I am not saying there aren’t great guys bringing things to the table but there also guys bringing nothing. They don’t bring money, emotional support or help with the kids.
It’s not easy for women but all I can advocate that they shouldn’t be fooled by materialism. Find someone nice; if two people are working together to build a home and wealth you have a higher chance of succeeding. Don’t be fooled that your husband has to be rich, that your kids have to go to school abroad. There are many Nigerians flashing a lot of money but the value of their lies is not necessarily proportionate to their wealth.
Ifeoma Fafunwa is an artist whose work will always have a social message. The creative sector continues to be a challenge with intermittent investment from the corporate sector and government. Nonetheless there is always the power of the private citizen. Individuals who are able to partake in the creative sector to sustainably create art for social impact and that is Ifeoma Fafunwa’s story.