CAMBRIDGE — Nigerian playwright Ifeoma Fafunwa would be the first to tell you that her homeland is a corrupt, lawless nation where women are trapped in a culture of submission. Boys and girls are raised differently. Rape victims must pay $70 just to report the crime — and then have to provide gas money to get a witness to show up to testify. Abused wives are asked what they did to deserve a beating. And when a woman’s husband dies, the authorities show up to investigate whether the widow committed murder, even if the deceased was in his 90s.
Agonizing stuff, but Fafunwa relates all these misogynist facts calmly, with a certain poise and even joie de vivre. She is, after all, on a mission to change her country’s patriarchal system. Her play, “HEAR WORD! Naija Woman Talk True,’’ features a cast of 10 Nigerian women who take a piercing look at the double standards in their homeland. It runs at the American Repertory Theater from Jan. 26 to Feb. 11.
“Women need to work on shifting the sense of what is possible,” says Fafunwa, who exudes positive energy with every word. “That doesn’t take more than a second. It doesn’t ask for anyone’s permission.”
She and the cast fervently believe that theater can change lives. “HEAR WORD” has gathered a dedicated following in Nigeria, where it has played numerous venues. Women come back four or five times, bringing their daughters, their mothers, and their sisters. Some audience members have told Fafunwa that the play inspired them to leave abusive relationships and to rethink their place in society. And the playwright, who culled stories of women through workshops and interviews, wants American audiences to have a similar response. “I want the audience to draw parallels to how patriarchy manifests itself in Africa and how it manifests itself in the rest of the world,” says Fafunwa, who is currently the Mary I. Bunting Fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute. “It is an olive branch, a bridge across cultures.”
And there is a certain serendipity to the production. The piece — which combines gorgeous African drumming on traditional instruments, rhythmic music, and dance in scenes sewed together seamlessly — debuted at the Harvard Dance Center two years ago, on the second anniversary of the kidnapping of 276 girls in the town of Chibok, Nigeria. And now it is returning to Cambridge in the midst of the #MeToo movement, when our culture is being forced to examine an ingrained history of predatory behavior and sexual violence. The production opens not long after President Trump, according to one senator, described African nations as “shithole countries.”
“OK,” Fafunwa says as she ponders this. “OK. It is relevant.”
The playwright, who endured abuse from age 4 to 14, left Nigeria for Boston at 17, with nothing planned. She enrolled at UMass Boston and then went to UMass Amherst. She stayed in the United States for 23 years, trained and worked as an architect, and married a Nigerian. She and her husband eventually moved back to their homeland, which is when she began exploring the issues in the play.
She first noticed that certain elite married women looked at her funny. She would walk in a room, with an open heart and a huge smile. The matriarchs stared her down. She explains that there is a saying in Nigeria meant to diminish any woman who poses a perceived threat: “Kí lò ún s’eleyi?” It means, “What is wrong with this person?” Married women say it when they are faced with a younger, attractive woman. Fafunwa heard it herself when she came back to her homeland. “These women were juggling infidelity . . . and everything else the culture threw at them,” Fafunwa says. “It was such a burden if some young thing walked in the room like a breeze and smiled. They took the oxygen out of the room.”
She realized there was a problem, a big one. And so she started talking to other women. She looked at the patriarchy and how women participated in the culture. The play features a few scenes in which women castigate their daughters and gossip about pretty young things. It also depicts painful vignettes about women who can’t leave their abusive husbands because they would be stuck as middle-aged, husbandless women, which is anathema in Nigeria. “If a woman at home is being beaten, she feels like she can’t get out, because then she is an unmarried woman, which is the worst thing, the older unmarried woman,” Fafunwa says. “The tradition is to get married like in the days of Cinderella and Snow White.”
Elvina Ibru, a magisterial actress in the play, knows all too well about that tradition. She is a single mother by choice. She didn’t want to be a part of an unequal union. “The double standards in Nigeria are too significant,” she says. “I am not single because nobody wants to marry me. I am single because I don’t want to get married.”
Ibru, like Fafunwa, lights up a room with her sense of humor and grace. But while she performs many of the positive scenes in the show, she is still undone by the weight of the painful stories. “It is harrowing,” she says. “When I watch some of the scenes, it is like I have never watched it before. I know that these things are still happening to women in 2018. But then you come across a woman who has managed to move out of an abusive household or get help for a child mutilated by female circumcision. This is why we do it.”
Fafunwa puts some of the onus on women in her culture for perpetuating the patriarchy — and she has been criticized for it. “Blaming the victim, blah, blah, blah,” she says. She says she deliberately did not want to write a man-bashing play, because she wanted them to listen. “Men in Nigeria have never been threatened by women talking. They don’t believe that leadership will be shared,’’ she says. “But since #MeToo, the language from Nigerian men has shifted. They have seen powerful men lose their jobs.”
Joke Silva, a star in the “Nollywood” film industry and a member of the cast, wholeheartedly agrees. “We are showcasing Nigerian culture and how Nigerian women are the gatekeepers of the cultural practices we want to change,” she says. “We socialize men in a way that there is a sense of entitlement.” In one scene, a group of women gossip about a young girl, throwing around the Nigerian slang for prostitute, asewo. It brings down the house when performed in Nigeria because it is so familiar.
All three women are able to laugh about the absurdity of some traditions: Teenage boys are urged to go find a wife, while young girls are told to stay away from men at all costs. And they know there will be more discussion when Fafunwa’s next play hits the streets of Nigeria. At Radcliffe, she is working on a piece called “Who Would Choose to Be Gay and Nigerian?” — her response to the draconian anti-gay laws the country imposed in 2014.
“I’m going after the intolerance,” Fafunwa says. The three women have slightly different opinions, but they all agree on one thing. “Who would choose to be gay in Nigeria?” asks Ibru. “Nobody.”
HEAR WORD! NAIJA WOMAN TALK TRUE
Directed by Ifeoma Fafunwa. Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Jan. 26-Feb. 11. Tickets from $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org