By Remmy Diagbare
Ifeoma Fafunwa is the Founder and Creative Director of iOpenEye Ltd., a Nigerian production company driving social change through performing arts. She produced the popular stage play ‘Hear Word! Naija Women 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 potentials and contributions of women.
Fafunwa’s professional experience includes creative collaborations in theatre, architecture, film and fine art in the US and Nigeria. In 2012, she directed one of Nigeria’s cultural submissions for the London Olympics and in 2014, her work was featured in the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) and showcased the Tate Modern. In 2016, “Hear Word!” had its international debut at Harvard University in Cambridge and in 2017, the same show opened at the American Repertory Theatre.
Fafunwa is a fellow of the Aspen Global Leadership Network. She was also awarded a Radcliffe Institute fellowship at Harvard University. She teaches a pro-bono performance art workshop, building capacity for young female performers and university students in Nigeria. She lives in Lagos; she is married and has four children.
You are a director in the performing arts industry. Tell us about your operations.
I am the founder of iOpenEye Ltd, a production company that utilises performing arts to drive social change. Our work centres around celebrating traditional Nigerian culture and addressing human rights and gender inequality. We are a very small operation so we utilise consultants and are hoping and praying for the day we can afford to grow our structure. We are willing to and have performed abroad, in Nigerian theatres, on Lagos streets, markets, bus stops and in universities around Nigeria. Our longest running project so far is the woman empowerment play titled ‘Hear Word!’
‘Hear Word!’, the play has become a major benchmark of success in the theatre industry. Can you tell us a bit about the play and its over-arching message?
‘Hear Word!’ is a collection of monologues based on true stories highlighting issues that Nigerian women face which limit their potentials for independence, success, collaboration, leadership and contributions to nation building. The main message to take from the play is that now is the time for women to take responsibility for their progress and the development of Nigeria.
As the play is about challenging social, cultural and political norms that limit the potential and contribution of women, do you believe it has made impact and if so how?
It must be working simply because of the support it has received and the number of people who watch it and return to watch it. However, I would urge you to find some women and men who have experienced ‘Hear Word!’ and do an article on how it may have shifted their lives or impacted their thoughts and beliefs.
What sort of comments do you get from men after the show?
Most men love the show! It may make them uncomfortable if they have seen something in it that reminds them of something they did that they regret but even then, it is positive. I believe most men who watch it like to see that the responsibility for women empowerment is shared by men, women, government and institutions. Everyone is responsible and this is refreshing for them. I think it is also good to sit in the dark and reflect on the things that one is not proud of and to have a minute to commend oneself for the things you have done right
What were some of the challenges you have had to overcome doing this work?
My biggest challenge with my work process is finding financial and administrative support. It is a challenge that I am yet to overcome so our company creates fewer productions than it should and I find myself doing things that I should not be doing and unable to function optimally. Fortunately, our work has the help of many ‘angels’; that is, people who just step in and offer help and advice simply because spiritually, personally or politically, they believe in the messages we share.
Of course, as I grow older, I become more aware of my blessings and less aware of my challenges. However, if I am to think of me as a person, it would be important for me to share my climbs over many hurdles to get to where I am today. One of the most significant transformations was in permitting myself to focus on this work. I had found it difficult to say ‘no’ to things even when not aligned with where I wanted to go. The other hurdle I face is the incredible uphill climb (still ongoing) to believing that I am worthy of getting to where I want to get to and understanding that the work I do is not about me or limited by what I believe is possible. I have had to remove myself and fears about this work from my work. This last part has taken many years.
Speaking of overcoming barriers and empowerment, what limitations do women face in Nigeria?
Women in Nigeria deal with an endless number of barriers that are ingrained in our traditions and cultural norms. However, in this conversation, I would like to draw attention to the over-bearing belief that it is important for women to be likeable. Nigerian men do not have this problem.
It is also problematic that women are raised to feel that they must gain permission from ‘someone’ or be granted ‘clearance’ from someone to attempt to be great. They believe they will be judged for being exceptional or strong or in a leadership role. They are also weighed down by the belief that they have failed if they do not marry or have children.
You once said that you do not like the word, ‘feminist’. What is your idea of feminism?
Feminism is advocacy for political, social and economic equality for women. A feminist is someone who engages or supports such work. I am an artist who creates work aimed at addressing our country’s inhumanity, corruption, human rights violations and gender inequality. My most passionate work is empowering women and highlighting the inequalities they face so you can, most definitely, define me as a feminist.
However, I must confess that I did not undertake any feminist-academic journey or read any feminist literature; as such, I do not define myself that way ‘officiously’. I have, sometimes, even said I do not like the word ‘feminist’. I must stress that this is not because I do not believe in and support a feminist agenda.
What I avoid are the limitations that the word conjures when it meets with ‘the limitlessness of my intentions, expressions and dreams’. Let me explain it another way. You see, since the day I was born, I have never for any portion of a second believed that any boy or man is better, smarter, greater or more deserving than me just because he is male. Now, I know that when it comes to gender issues, there is so much to overcome, to fight for, to discuss and to change, and I am right there in the trenches. However, my spirit is not defined by that space. Instead, it lives in the space of the future where the word ‘feminist’ is either unnecessary or exists only beside the word ‘masculinist’ and ‘humanist’.
Call me a dreamer but I choose to just ‘assume this space of value’ as I have done since the day I was born like any man in the room does and I don’t need a label to do so.
Here’s a quote from a radio interview you did on ‘Radio Boston’ in the US during your international debut at Harvard University last year. “Nigerian playwright and director, Ifeoma Fafunwa, says that if the world is to make an honest reckoning of how and why women are oppressed, women must ask themselves, “What’s my responsibility? What did I do to create this world?” What do you mean by this?
I mean that women need to tax themselves about the culture of silence. They need to ask if they are engaged in the collective struggle, helping to build up other women or simply gossiping and putting women down. What I am saying is that women need to ask themselves why they are gatekeepers of patriarchy and how they treat their daughters differently from their sons and, ultimately, what they are accepting and tolerating because they want to please; how they are playing small instead of taking responsibility, putting themselves out there and leading the way – regardless of what they know people will whisper through the watering holes.
You are currently doing a fellowship at the prestigious Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. Tell us what it is like and about the project you are working on for your fellowship year? Should we be expecting another ground-breaking play from Ifeoma Fafunwa?
Being awarded this Radcliffe fellowship is just incredible and beyond what I could gift myself. The acceptance rate for all applicants from around the world is 4% so I am still waking up surprised. There are just shy of fifty incredible fellows here working in different disciplines from Molecular Biology, Astrology, Law, Mathematics, Politics and History. The institute is very supportive of our work and space to work. While I am here, I have chosen to work on a human rights issue that I have been passionate about for a while. Let’s wait and see at the end of the fellowship, what we end up with.
‘Hear Word!’ is the first Nigerian production to be invited to stage at the esteemed American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Boston. How do you hope the show will be received by American audiences?
We are fortunate to be featured on a main stage American theatre like the American Repertory Theatre and for 22 shows back-to-back; here’s where I pitch from January 26 until February 11, 2018! It is brilliant for iOpenEye Ltd, for the actresses, for Nigerian women, for Nigeria and me!
Now, if I am to get past all that and think about the American audiences, I believe that even if they do not get the nuances and subtext, they will connect with the universal story of women; at this time, when there is a rise in intolerance and pervasive discussions of gender inequality, they will appreciate a diverse cultural experience and be moved by the professionalism and commitment from these ten incredible Nigerian actresses which include the likes of Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Bimbo Akintola and Joke Silva.
We are also hoping to get the word out to Africans and African-Americans in the greater Boston area.
Are you a social media user or just a visitor? What do you think of social media as a communication platform in this age?
I am terrible at social media (usage) but I believe it is the most efficient way to communicate. Look at what is happening in the US now with #metoo – women around the world being able to share stories, support one another and expose powerful sexual predators. Look, someone needs to teach me how to use this tool! Last week, I discovered that I had had messages in Messenger for the past two years and I am still confused whether or not it is good to ‘friend’ people and how exactly to post and what my practice of posting should be. It is critical for my work and I will get it eventually.
What do you do to relax?
Hmmm… In the morning, when I have a minute, I sit quietly and stare out of the window. This is the time I also have a cup of tea. It is also part of my week to experience something artistic; go to a gallery, visit an artist or just talk about art. For my family, holidays are the most important even though I am guilty of taking work on holiday with me. It gives me time away from the usual stressful routine and I can focus on my children on something other than school. We like to discover places in Lagos, in Nigeria, and along the coast of West Africa.
What is your guiding philosophy?
Find what you are incredible at doing and do it. As you go through life, treat people the way you want them to treat you (i.e. love thy neighbour as thyself).
How do you describe your style? Do you set aside time for grooming or you think it is not necessary?
It is necessary o! I have become very efficient in my grooming business. For me, it’s about being simple and stylish. I wear my hair in braids so I can wash it in the braids and wake-up-and-walk. This means sitting down in a salon once a month and read email, work on my laptop or make phone calls. I wear minimal make-up and even though I would like to be more fashionable, I have devised a wardrobe of what I call ‘desirable daily uniforms’. This means having a tailor sew the same dress which you look decent in, ten times and in ten different ankara fabrics – then one does not have to think about co-ordinating. It is like a ‘get out of jail free’ card!
How do you balance your home demands with your professional demands without one suffering for the other?
(Smiles) I like it when I get asked this question only because it is a chance for me to be even more real than I usually am. Let me tell you truly, I have not seen this ‘balance’ that people keep talking about! When I am working, my home is suffering and when I am home, my work is suffering! That is the balance. I fully expect my children to grow up and complain about my obsession with work and I am still thinking about how I will explain myself.