‘Hear Word’ and Echoes of Queen Idia in Benin City
This space used to house The Nigerian Observer—the premier newspaper of the state— and is named after the musical icon, known to the world as Guitar Boy.
From here, where we’re gathered for “a performance that combines social commentary and stories of gender inequality,” we can smell the coffee of Benin history.
What’s left of the journalistic origin of the compound is a bronze statue of a shirtless man in a skirt who seems to be describing the Benin moat to his left—just a stretch of it.
The Guild of Benin Bronze Casters World Heritage Site, known to us as Igun Eromwon, is a bullet flight away from our packed auditorium. The UNICEF recognized street is the womb of the 5000 Benin bronzes— magnificent, though stolen, artifacts in top museums and galleries around the world. The most famous of the looted artworks is the ivory sculpture of Queen Idia, the first queen mother to survive the coronation of a royal son. As the drums tug our attention, memories of Queen Idia hovers in the air. And is printed on Elvina Ibru’s blouse.
The stage itself is plain. But for the drums and Xylophone mounted on the sideline.
Percussion is integral to Ifeoma Fafunwa’s string of monologues, songs and dances deriving unity from the themes and counterpoints. The play is episodic, moving from the naivety in the opening scene to the maturity and sophistication performed by the 82-year-old Taiwo Ajai-Lycett.
Hear Word hinges on unveiling the existential dilemmata and truamata of women of all ages and educational brackets in a patriarchal contraption as the actresses move on and off the stage to deliver their stories.
Scene by scene, revealed by precise spotlighting, the actresses confront our minds with marital abuse, loveless marriage, rape, sexual harassment, underage pregnancy, widow issues, sex and the acquiescence of women in their own oppression.
But let’s not jump the gun…
It’s such an applause earning ninety minutes— hitting sound levels that may be heard in the palace of the Oba of Benin— that we may as well start with the bitter stuff, the blight to our brilliant theatrical immersion.
Finally, after over an hour of sound checking, light checking, floor mapping and other none of our business bending and standing around, three musicians — the only men in the troupe—begin the show with their enchanting percussion. Ifeoma Fafunwa, the tall, light skinned creative director and co-writer emerges from the left wing and opens the show. She sits to address us,
“Hear word is a play that focuses on the [plight] of women and… Basically, what is happening in today’s world. It’s been traveling to different cities around Africa…the US, Europe. The main actors ….have been in the show since the beginning… almost nine years…We’re now like a family…. So we’re here today … in Benin city. Please welcome us…”
It’s a much longer monologue, and the resounding ovation could have drowned the feedback from a fellow behind me,
“African time is a disease. Can you imagine? Even at this level. Something scheduled for 3. Just look at the time. No apology.”
The front rows is reserved for senior citizens. But the 90% university age audience just can’t wait to see Taiwo Ajai-Lycett and Joke Silva. They gushed in splinter groups about the legends outside the auditorium before the show, so the explosive clapping even before the opening drumbeats can only mean one thing. But trust Ifeoma Fafunwa to mine audience anticipation suspensefully.
The spotlights reveal three very competent but younger actresses. The theme of their vignette recruits the young ladies behind us at once. The trio are performing as naive teenagers faced with sexual predators. The young ladies have been— directly or by proxy— in these uncomfortable situations unfolding on stage.
Their evocations, scored by percussion, leave the sensitive with haunting reflections about these uninvited intrusions into a young lady’s hair, shoulder, not to talk of breast. Psychologically violent and traumatic antics playing out on our streets and workplaces.
In the first ten minutes, the opening scene of Hear Word creates an ominous feeling.
“It always starts small,” says the first narrator, alluding to the insidious nature of these abuses.
“He seemed fatherly… reassuring even. But it was only the beginning…The way he said that’s nice blouse…I didn’t feel safe and I really need this job.”
This speaks volumes to any young lady whose lecturer ever tried to defile for grades and those whose bosses feel entitled to degrading demands.
A roll of drums…
Music demarcates every vignette. Sometimes signifying a new evocation, the passage of time or a new situation or scene.
…This present piece bridges one monologue to another.
The streets are even more nightmarish. These are often random strangers, some of them will take a gun to anyone trespassing their own daughters or wives.
“And walking down the street and even if I pretend I can’t hear it. His words are following me…
I don’t even know his name, he was holding my hand. Why are you holding my hand?”
As the drum rolls again, a matronly lady on my left is telling a younger lady on her left,
“There’s no woman I know who has never suffered that one. Very annoying…”
Much as I appreciate her comment, Hear Word is a moving train and we’re suddenly in a bus.
No space is safe.
“It was 15 minutes bus trip,” narrates the third actress. “The bus was full…I was looking out the window… when I felt something…I did not want to embarrass him. Maybe it was just a mistake… But [he was] rubbing against my thigh. I wanted to…fly out the window.”
The light goes black. The eruption of applause is beyond appreciating the ace performance of the actresses and accompanying musicians. Hear Word, in this baiting scene had evoked their collective truama. The clapping and cheering was cathartic and empowering via the mechanism of empathy.
The show is only just beginning and has gone way beyond looking forward to seeing the living legends of Nollywood. The heart of this audience is fully invested in the social change initiative playing out. Even my formerly grumpy neighbour is clapping with the vigour of someone who has totally forgiven the delay.
Music ushers in a formation of seven actresses, making their entry with a Yoruba song about a child being an apparel for the parents. In the monologue that follows, punctuated by choric repartees by six women, the folk song takes on an ironic hue.
There’s an energy spike as the crowd caught their first sight of Joke Silva. The septet strikes a smiling freeze to absorb the electricity. Then they offer a slice of the song and Joke Silva and others— including Ufuoma McDermott, Elvina Ibru, recede to the back light. These are the sisters and aunties of the husband. You will expect them to be sympathetic to the wife, but this monologue is a dissonance to the entrance song.
“They asked me how many children I had,” says the wife. “these sisters of my husband. I said five beautiful daughters….”
“We said children, not daughters.”
“Three people died in that accident and one woman,” pulls you into the absurdity of what patriarchy in Africa is propagating.
This scene expands the conversation about Ifeoma Fafunwa’s world view as presented in Hear Word. Women are just as complicit in sustaining some aspects of the discrimination against women.
“If you can not produce a male child, you can not be part of our inheritance…We only start counting from the first son….”
Unease is the audience reaction to this scene. A quietude only surpassed by the monologue about a campus date rape.
Ifeoma Fafunwa pulls deep emotional strings at some points, but balances them with humourous but equally scalding narratives.
The monologues by Elvina Ibru and Joke Silva on a shared stage, contrasting an illiterate mother with a literate one, enacts about four decades. Made possible by spot lights and music, we see both mothers progress from:
“…Sweet sixteen, you’ll soon be bitter if you carry belle…” and “That neckline is scandalous…” to getting desperate for them to bring home suitors.
The premium on marriage reechoes when our industrious market woman, Joke Silva’s main monologue, takes a fake man for a husband. After promising the world, he turns out to be one too happy to sleep all day and content to live on his wife. At his death, his family shows up from nowhere, with secret children he had at her expense to claim the houses and wealth she earned by her own sweat.
The same crude shock awaits the character Taiwo Ajai-Lycett plays when she’s finally presented to her cheering, clapping fans. She refreshes her pose and smile, at least thrice, before their exuberance makes room for her 50 years of marriage monologue.
“My husband, Rotimi and I met in 1963, at a Valentine day party… They were playing Joromi…Then one day, Rotimi died. He closed the gate of happiness and swung open the gate of hell…Women with children who looked just like him.”
The hedges around women in a patriarchy are many and Hear Word tries to engage on many fronts, only bringing on the preaching device after luring her audience into a deep emotional investment into her crusade.
The crusade is driven in this preaching mode with dancing and poetry by Omono Imobhioh—the tidal wave— and a monologue by Uforma McDermott which reminds of the Vagina Monologue.
*Aoiri Obaigbo is the author of The Virgin Widow and The Wretched Billionaire.