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Stories of Survival and Hope Take the Stage at A.R.T.

A remarkable cast of Nigerian actresses pierce the heart in Hear Word! Naija Woman Talk True

Taiwo Ajai-Lycett in Hear Word! Naija Woman Talk True, cowritten and directed by Ifeoma Fafunwa, at the American Repertory Theater.
(© Gretjen Helene Photography)

Although there's a lot of pain onstage at the American Repertory Theater's Loeb Drama Center, it's likely that you'll walk away feeling inspired rather than traumatized.

Hear Word! Naija Woman Talk True, which will run through February 11, is clearly a passion project for director and cowriter Ifeoma Fafunwa. Based on the stories of real Nigerian women, Hear Word! was already a sold-out phenomenon across Nigeria when it got on Harvard's radar in 2015. A limited engagement of the docu-style performance piece sold out at Harvard Dance Center in 2016 and was so powerful that A.R.T. artistic director Diane Paulus knew she had to bring it back for a full run. And thank goodness she did.

Hear Word! touches not only on the unspeakable, widespread abuse of Nigerian women and girls but also speaks to some of the social and cultural constructs that have facilitated this abuse for generations. From workplace harassment to brutal rape and the tendency to view women as childbearing commodities whose value is determined solely by how much men desire them, the play is so frequently devastating that some of the lighter scenes peppered throughout feel very much like necessary gasps for air. Although it generally unfolds as a series of monologues, the short scenes are punctuated with vibrant music (performed offstage by three percussionists) and thrilling dances. (It's no wonder that Fafunwa cites The Vagina Monologues and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf as influences, according to the show's program).

Despite some confusing storytelling, a lack of cohesion, and a bit of repetitiveness in the play's first 20 minutes, once Hear Word! picks up steam, it never looks back. Fafunwa's production crackles with both a lust for life and a defiance that is utterly stirring. Much of this is owed to the fearless, unforgettable 10 actors whose performances brim with rare authenticity and flawless candor. This is the finest ensemble of actors assembled on the Boston stage in the last several years. All 10 women were involved with the brief 2015 run, and all but one performed in the three-year-long Nigerian tour.

The show plays out on a mostly bare stage, though despite the very wide and seemingly cavernous playing area, the space is entirely filled out by the larger-than-life performances of the stellar cast. Aja M. Jackson's lighting is impeccable, and Ituen Basi's exquisite Nigerian costumes are spectacularly vivid.

There is pain onstage, sure, but there's also an inspiring, life-affirming joy that makes Hear Word! a fascinating, effervescent tour de force that feeds the soul.