Photo:Gretjen Helene Photography

It is an expression of pure, justifiable rage and a call to arms from half a world away: HEAR WORD! Naija Woman Talk True is viscerally alive onstage at the American Repertory Theater and will shake you into action. Based on the testimony of Nigerian women and woven into a painful fabric of heartache, anger, blood, guilt, resentment, death and ultimately power, HEAR WORD! first emerged on stages all across Nigeria where it gave voice to the diminished plight of women there.

These stories document the experiences of women of varying ages and circumstances, economic and social classes, mothers and daughters, married and single, working professionals and young teens. Their stories have been shaped into monologues, or even mini plays by an extraordinary ensemble of performers from Nigerian stage and screen: Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Joke Silva, Bimbo Akintola, Ufuoma McDermott, Elvina Ibru, Omonor, Zara Udofia-Ejoh, Rita Edward, Debbie Ohiri, and Odenike, as well as drummers Emeka Christian Anokwuru, Frank Ebisidor Asiyai, and Blessing Akpofure Idireri.

These actresses stalk the boards with tales of blinding cruelty, suffering, and disempowerment at the hands of men and other women, and every institution religious, political, social, familial; some have been scapegoated for every cruel twist of fate: the death of a husband, a baby, their own  domestic abuse, and rape.  In everyday life, some of these same women have born unacknowledged, uncompensated backbreaking work, and the ignominy of being traded like property to relatives and houseguests, with no voice in their own dismal fates.

Directed by Ifeoma Fafunwa, the show builds by increments as these actresses– wildly expressive in their heartbreak or unexpected bursts of humor against the dark–take turns on a simple empty stage and fill it to overflowing with the breadth of their commitment, force of will, and energy.  An onstage percussion ensemble punctuates the rhythm of these living, breathing narratives, the pounding of a heartbeat, the tension of a woman in extremis, the joy of a small victory, and finally an impassioned, unified cry of defiance and transcendent affirmation.

I was inspired to my bones and recognized myself in the frustration of every one of these experiences–that of the weary uneducated woman preparing her family’s  meager dinner and serving herself last; a woman with suicidal thoughts after an assault; a young professional struggling to forge a path through a drumbeat of limited cultural expectations and her angry mother’s stunted expectations for the daughter with bigger dreams. I recognized clearly that they and we are connected and fundamentally fighting the same fight to survive and be heard.

Not one actress wore shoes. As I looked at their bare feet on that stage, I felt the same ground beneath us all, how we must stand this ground at this moment on the earth, and join with our sisters everywhere to be heard, to speak, to BE powerful. Yes, times up– and HEAR WORD! is the timeliest of tales. I saw it with my husband; take yours or a friend and go to the A.R.T. through this weekend February 11!