Towards a Feminist Theatre in Nigeria
Feminist theatre in Nigeria enables women to reclaim silenced voices that have long been restricted by societal stereotypes. I grew up doing as I was told to enable society to view me as the ideal version of a Nigerian woman. The word “vagina” was prohibited, especially from the mouth of a girl. We were told that women who expressed their sexuality freely were the “loose” ones who had no shame and cared less about their future. Directing V’s The Vagina Monologues has made me more comfortable expressing who I am without considering what the society thinks about my personality.
I was tired of biased notions about women, including the perception that we were created to satisfy and help men, so we created a production that talks about women’s issues in contemporary Nigeria. The Vagina Monologues is series of female monologues about topics like female sexuality, rape, and women appreciating their bodies. The aim of the monologues is to empower women and to encourage them to be more open about who they are. The idea behind this production was to empower women in their sexuality and to address issues of rape and female genital mutilation.
The first step to creating feminist theatre is to act as an agent of feminism against female subjugation and oppression. To be a feminist is to accept that there is social injustice against women, identify these injustices, and seek to reverse the situation to establish a gender-balanced society. Therefore, feminist theatre uses performance to effect a change of attitude in society by correcting false, sexist images of women.
The play was staged within a culture of silence, where women must cover up not only their bodies but also their hurts, their pains, and their lived experiences.
I staged this play in University of Ibadan, Nigeria—a university that was silently or subconsciously accepting the old roles through restrictions on women. The play was staged within a culture of silence, where women must cover up not only their bodies but also their hurts, their pains, and their lived experiences. Right up until the opening of this play, my crew and I worried that the university— which has never experienced a radical theatre performance in which women would freely talk about sex and their private parts on stage—might not be ready for a politicized play about genitalia and empowerment. The school had banned a play from going on stage the year before because the play’s poster featured a lady holding a man’s penis. Our poster took a different approach by letting university administrators know that our major aim was to empower women and girls in our society.
We remained unshaken in our determination to stage this play because rape, female genital mutilation, childbirth, sexuality, and female empowerment needed to be discussed on stage. We needed to publicly speak about these topics, which society perceives as private, to make space for women to talk about themselves freely without shame. I thought that a play that seeks to relieve women of shame and makes it possible for them to tell the truth about their lives would be the first step to liberation.
When we wanted to stage a play titled The Vagina Monologues in an environment that discourages women from speaking publicly about their bodies, many eyebrows were raised. Some raised eyebrows grew into resistance. However, my experience with this production demonstrated that older women with authority can ally with other women to create a formidable force. They may be ignored by those who seek to oppress, but they will be heard by those who are being oppressed. Our production was supported by two women activists, Ms. Omolara Dolapo Olatubosun and Dr. Oluwakemi Ademola-Aremu, who delivered a lecture series called “Societal Depreciation of Women in the Society as Edified through Media, Violence and Culture: A Path Towards Gender Appreciation” before each performance. Because the lecture series showed how our production functioned as a campaign against female oppression, the university gender mainstream chairman told our team to go ahead. For Ms. Nze Amen and I, the producers of the play, there was no turning back.
Before and during The Vagina Monologues rehearsals, I had conversations with female university students about issues women face in society. The actors were quite open with me because I was real and made myself vulnerable towards them. In these conversations, I was more than a director talking to actors; these were conversations between women about discrimination against their gender. From these conversations with university students, I saw that the problems women face in the society—such as rape, socially defined gender roles, and other burdens—remain largely unsolved. However, these women were beginning to see these wrongs for themselves.
For me, it is more important for the oppressed to be educated and actively develop a means of creating change than it is for an oppressor to acknowledge their wicked ways.
During the rehearsal process, I put special effort into ensuring that the cast bonded and became sisters. They shared past experiences with each other. During a particular rehearsal session, a cast member remembered a traumatic lived experience similar to the story being told. A cloud of gloom dominated the atmosphere until the end of that rehearsal. We all rallied around her that day, but it made us more resolute in our determination to stage this play.
After the play closed, I saw the cast assertively challenging and changing old views about women in the society. Because the play and our discussions opened their hearts and minds to new ways of thinking, they became more motivated to protest and make changes in the community. The idea was to enlighten these women first so they could go out and spread awareness on issues women face in Nigerian society.
For me, it is more important for the oppressed to be educated and actively develop a means of creating change than it is for an oppressor to acknowledge their wicked ways. An enlightened oppressed person no longer stays docile and accepts their bad fate. They grow a voice and speak out against oppression. Fortunately, we live in a time when, at least internationally, women’s voices matter. When oppressed women speak, there are well-meaning people who actively seek to hear and help them. To get this help, Nigerian women must first realize that their present situation is not ideal and can get better. This is why I staged The Vagina Monologues.
The Vagina Monologues is not well-known in Nigeria. Almost everyone who participated in the production was seeing the script for the first time. The audience didn’t know what to expect. They wondered, “Would women be naked? Is talking about vaginas legal?” It was clear that women would be talking about their bodies, and the show quickly became something everyone was curious about. Everyone, especially women, wanted to see it.
Although our production remained The Vagina Monologues, the content was thoroughly tweaked to resonate more with Nigerian women. Some Nigerian songs, phrases, language, slang were added to boost familiarity. The characters represented Nigerian women in urban and rural environments. The monologues touched on everything from child abuse to widowhood, and from physical abuse to masturbation. Every monologue struck a chord in the hearts of the audience.
The monologue “Under the Burqa” represented the plight of women and children in the northern part of Nigeria. According to 2017 statistics, 45 percent of girls in Nigeria were married before they turned 18. This practice of child marriage is more rampant in the northern part of the country. For this scene, a girl wearing her hijab sat down on a chair and addressed the audience in an emotional manner.
“My Angry Vagina” urged Nigerian women to stop shoving hard sanitary towels or cloths in their vaginas during menstruation. This monologue was delivered in pidgin language, which unifies Nigerians across classes. I made these edits because I was aware of the diversity among the women present in the cast, crew, and in audience.
“The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy” was quite controversial to the audience. During rehearsals, even I was worried about the public reception of this monologue, which features a sex worker whose clients are women. She discusses the intriguing details of her career and her love of giving women pleasure. Sex work remains criminalized in Nigeria, but that was not the biggest problem for the production The biggest problem was women’s perceptions of sex work, as sex workers in Nigeria are despised. We wanted to correct those perceptions through the monologue, but the experiment wasn’t quite successful. Some audience members saw it as a humorous performance, perhaps because of the various sounds of moans and orgasms. Others simply saw the monologue as a profane thing that lacked dignity.
“Because He Liked to Look at It” was quite charming to the audience, and they followed the dramatization with so much seriousness. The rehearsal and performance for this monologue was easier than others because the actor related to it. I granted her some liberty to add some of her personal languages and mannerisms to really portray how a man made her fall in love with her vagina again.
The spectacular aspect of the monologues was that the word “vagina” was used appropriately many times in the narratives. This defied societal stereotypes about the word being something shameful.
The major aim of the performance was to draw attention to several issues women face in Nigerian society and make changes where we can. While some of these issues are perpetuated by tradition and even legislation, the fundamental issue is that women use their voices and their power to change stereotypes about them in the society. The Vagina Monologues was created to make women understand their rights, know their worth, value themselves, and have tons of self-esteem; and this was achieved through the playmaking process and the powerful performance.
*Images from Kofowowola Owokotomo's production of The Vagina Monologues.