Ifeoma Fafunwa is the founder and creative director of iOpenEye, a Nigerian production company driving social change through performance art. She recently produced the popular stage play Hear Word! Naija Woman Talk True, a collection of monologues based on true-life stories of Nigerian women, aimed at challenging social, cultural, and political norms that limit the potential and contribution of women.
During her fellowship, Fafunwa intends to write and produce a socially transformative stage play that explores and seeks solutions to the extremely homophobic environment that is Nigeria today. Utilizing theatre informed by research of current laws, cultural norms, and true stories from the Nigerian LGBT community, she is exploring the roles that women and religion have played in the systemic propagation of this culture of intolerance. By highlighting the many roles and relationships of Nigerian women, Fafunwa aims to portray the unique power women possess in acting as societal change makers. Fafunwa directed one of Nigeria’s cultural submissions for the London 2012 Olympics, and her work has been featured at LIFT, London’s festival for new forms of theater. In 2016, HEAR WORD! premiered internationally in Cambridge with support from Harvard University and the American Repertory Theatre, and then was staged at the Frascati theatre in Amsterdam. Fafunwa has been a visiting scholar at the Radcliffe Institute and is a fellow of the Aspen Global Leadership Network. The beautiful art director, who runs a pro bono performance art workshop building capacity for young female artists and university students in Nigeria, shares her story with Global Excellence magazine’s AKIN ALADE. Enjoy reading…
One would expect a good production like “Hear Word” to have been packaged by an expert. Could you let us into your background?
Well, I started out in interior architecture, I have a degree and worked for many years in architect offices but all along, I always love theatre and film and I spent a lot of time as an audience member when I was very young. I then started taking acting classes in my 20s, this is a while ago and I did become an actor for a while. I would go back and forth between architecture and acting; sometimes I do the two at the same time. When I moved back to Nigeria, I had already done some directing and some writing in the U.S. I was born in Nigeria. When I moved back, I ran into Joke Silva, she knew me from when I was younger and she gave me the virginal monologues to direct. As at that time, she was producing that show. I was in theatre in U.S for some years and I had directed and written pieces, even when I was nominated for an award in the Los Angelis area. So, that is the theatre background. When it comes to women issues which is what this particular Hear Word is about. For me, the impatience was coming back to Nigeria and having seen the culture and how oppressive the culture was to women and I said to myself I can’t meet up with this kind of weight because women were juggling so much. I realized women were getting their hair done, their nails done, trying to look the best they could, balancing a job, looking after the children, trying to balance their husband’s girlfriend, trying to balance themselves in the office not to offend people too much, it was just too much of a balancing act. Parallel with that was also the fact that women were kind of cold to one another, they would find other women threatening and when I tried to examine what that was about, that’s when the need for this play started, and it was asking the question, if women were in support of other women? If the culture was supportive of women? If legislature was supportive of women? What is the potential there? Eighty million Nigerian women, what can they be doing to protect Nigeria instead of busy eyeing each other?
How long did it take you to put it together since it’s a massive project?
I think it’s a cumulation of several years. It has to be almost five years to tell you the truth. I might not have known I would get to this exact point but after doing the Virginal Monologue, I realized that we needed to do more about Nigerian story but ‘Hear Word’ is not about women sexuality or violence against women. It’s really not. It’s about capacity, it’s about potentials. I would say collecting stories, thinking about issues for about four years, four good long years before we got to this place. Some of the stories, a few of them are from V Monologues but I would say 70 percent of the material is coming from just me collecting material, every time I would see something happen and that was a mixed potential for Nigeria.
You studied architecture. Where did you get the love for theatre?
I think the love for theatre was always there first. I think I was born with that. In Nigeria, in 1970s, you did not just come out and say you were an artiste; everybody wanted their children to be a lawyer, a doctor. Even in my house where that was not what they were saying, you still heard it from your friends so, to come to say you wanted to be an actor or you wanted to be a painter was a very tough thing. Those parents who supported their children have to be really commended. I think really for me, it was just as if I was born to be in performance art and fine art but I did not have the courage to tell my parents that is what I wanted to do.
How were you able to do the casting from the wide range of talented actors available without itches?
For me, the casting was based on people who had the ability to dedicate the time because what you saw takes a lot of time to put together so, if I needed to work with people who were dedicated both to the message as well as the art form because for me and for Eye Open Eye, which is the company that produced it, our mission is to produce the best performance art you can find anywhere that has a message as well because it is all about potential. We are growing potentials for the country, for women and for the arts so; we are not interested in sort of things that are not at their best. So when I was casting, I was looking for performers that were ready to dedicate time, energy as well as believed in that this message needs to go out because passion is what you want.
Some men would see this play as a rebellious move. What is your reaction to that?
I was very pleasantly surprised on last Saturday that we had 50 percent male turn out. This is new for this play. This used to run with only 15, 20 percent male but on Saturday, I would say equally if not more men in the room and some men had come back two or three times to see the play so, it is having an effect . The play is not actually a male bashing play. If you watch it properly, you will find out that most perpetrators in the play are women. We had mother in-laws trying to break down daughter in-laws; we had women that were gossiping about their neighbours and other people’s children. We had women that were debasing themselves and women who were making very poor choices so, if you look at the real person that gets the bashing in that play, it’s the women themselves. And that is why they like to come and see it because they ask themselves the question that why am I short changing myself? and why am I mistreating my own children, and why am I being terrible to my daughter in-law and I think that it’s a place where women can reflect. So, the men, we give only about 20 percent of our material, we don’t give them that much material so if they are feeling bashed, it means they are feeling guilty. (Smiles)
Looking at you, one would not expect you to have come up with some very local dialogues like the one in the role of Elvina Ibru. Tell us about that?
Well…..(Laughs) I think you are just looking at me, I was born at Onikan, Lagos. I was born in Lagos Island even though I left when I was 16 years old. My parents were not people who believe in sheltering us so, I travelled round Nigeria. I know my grandmother very well, I watch people very well, I choose characters and I do define my characters. They are people I know, they are from the real people that I have met so, that is where that comes from. I also opened the writing up to anybody who wants to write for us. If you go through the programme booklet, we have many writers. But still the writing does not define the depth of the personality that comes from both the actor and myself. I see every single character before the person emerges and then the actor does his own research and what you see finally on stage is the melting of that character, the writing and what I have in my head.
Do you intend to get the play to wider audience because being a stage performance has shut out so many from sharing from the message?
Yes…we plan to eventually get it to where everybody in Nigeria can easily grab it as a copy of the play but before we go there, we are interested in promoting performance art, what happens is we look for sponsors who would help us. We were at Mushin market, we were at Oshodi bus stop, we were at UNILAG. At UNILAG, we had 1,700 students, some did not pay, and some paid N500. What we do is whenever we have a sponsor that is willing to pay for it, we go anywhere. We are ready to go anywhere because we are ready to spread. We have plans that next year we will do much more public stuff in open air where anybody can walk right off the street and enter and just come and see it. That is our plan.
As the arrow head of a successful production, how does it make you feel when people sing your praise and congratulate you?
I feel very good about it. I don’t feel like this is all me because when I conceived of it, I actually even thought that there would be more people participating in this thing than the few of us that are participating in it now, meaning those working on it. What happened is that we created it when I conceived it in my mind. We can move anywhere, we can do it anywhere. I opened it up for people to send stories, to tell us their stories, to share in it. We thought the creation of it, the performance of it, the audience participation, we wanted it to be something that everybody could take credit for being a part.
You are an Igbo woman married to Yoruba man. Did you do that probably because you were afraid of the believed harsh cultural treatment Igbo daughter in –laws are subjected to when their husbands die?
No. Not at all. (Laughs) I marry anybody from anywhere that treated me right and that I was attracted to. I had my criteria. I did not marry until it was quite late, I married in my late 30s. I was very picky and my husband that I married was my best friend from the time I was 17. I married my husband not because he was Yoruba but because he’s a very nice man, he’s very supportive and I was not going to tolerate anything less.
It’s an issue in this part of the world when a lady marries late. How would you react to this based on the cause you champion?
I think people would do what they want to do and it’s a freedom to marry whenever you want so far I think you are over 18. I am against people marrying under 18 because as a woman you really have not reached idea of yourself by the time you are 18 and you are not making any wise decision. I think that you marry when you know yourself and I think the sooner a young woman gets out into the world and lives by herself, feed by herself and works, that is quicker that she can marry. I think when you are sheltered; you don’t know what you want because you are getting everything from your parents. This is where it’s controversial for me because if you notice in the play, we say when a woman is living alone, people say she is loose but that helped me in making the wise choice in my husband because I had already become an independent person and I knew what I needed to bring to the table and I knew what I expected my husband to bring to the table because I knew if I did not marry, I would still be okay. I would still feed myself, would still have a fulfilling life and I understood who I was, what I liked and what I was about, and I think that is the real way a woman should enter into a marriage where you are equal with your husband.
The cause you champion, could you tell us what your experience has been like in marriage?
I think I should be saying I am very lucky and thanking God because my husband is very supportive of me. He’s a kind of husband that is rare, I don’t want to say he’s perfect because I am not watching him 24/7 but if I need to go away for three weeks to work on certain things, he would look after my children well and they won’t miss a day of school, he would make sure that he covers that for me even though he’s a CEO of his own company. And like wise, if he has to go away and do whatever, I would do it as well. He sees me as his equal and his best friend so, we help each other. So, I might say that I am lucky. I also might say when I was young, I made a choice in my late 20s after experiencing a relationship where the man I was dating made some errors. He was very sweet but I didn’t know where he was, I did not know what he was doing, I didn’t know what money he earned, I didn’t understand those things. When I was in my late 20s, I said this is not gonna work for me, this does not work with my vibe, I don’t care if I don’t marry a man who has a lot of money but he needs to be my friend otherwise, I am just not gonna marry so, that was the choice I made at 28 and I waited till I got to 38 before I got married.
With how you painted your husband, what would you do if someday your husband brings a child claiming he got the child from another woman?
Well, I don’t really know what my reaction would be….. It will be conceited of me to really understand or know my behaviour. In the same thing, I don’t know what my behaviour will be because that seems to me so differently from my reality right now. That is the honest truth. I don’t know what I would do because like I said, my husband is my best friend, I need to really understand what is going on. I don’t know what my reaction would be, I will have to look at it in terms of my life, my kids, my spiritual positioning. I am going to probably check this one. The truth of the matter is I don’t think that would happen to me. When I grew up, I expected very well that such a thing might have happened with my father and no sibling has come forward since my father died. I expected that it may even happen with my husband’s father but no sibling has come forward to say he/she is my husband’s father’s child, I doubt that that will happen to me but if it were to happen to me, God will give me the power to make the best choice because again, it’s another human being that is outside the home and it’s not their fault but let me tell you something, my husband will suffer for it (general laughter). Things will change. Level go shift. That equality in the home…somebody go dey in charge now. Somebody go become boss after that and it’s not going to be the other person, it’s going to be me.
You appear to be one who is not given to frivolities. What was your growing up like?
I come from a very conservative background, my mother was a vice principal in a school and my father was a civil servant for a while and he was a sport personality. My mum was very religious. She did not believe in any flamboyance, she did not wear makeup. Maybe in some respect, that affected me; my mum was not in any way moved by status or money. She’s not going to change the way she organizes anything for you. As a child, I did not understand that but as an older person, I realized that she was very comfortable in her choices and her own skin. I feel that is the best example I could have had. My father too, he was the son of Owelle of Onitsha but he never told us that. My parents were quite humble people and I think that is really where my behaviour emanates from.