Throughout our lives, there are always stories that connect us. Here’s What She Said to Me, directed by Mojisola Elufowoju and performed as part of Arcola Theatre’s Today I’m Wiser, outdoor festival brings such tales to life through music, dance, and poetry. Spanning three generations and two continents we follow a family of three Nigerian women and are invited to listen to the stories that connect them all, the pasts they have lived and how those parallels affect who they are today.
It shows us that storytelling between families is a powerful and important way to understand each other in new ways
I was first struck by the way we were greeted by our characters on stage, immediately enveloped within their culture and the weight of all they have been through before they had even said a word. Walking on in perfect unison the three women stood tall reciting words from a Yoruba song and gazing fiercely into the distance. A man wearing traditional Nigerian dress sits slightly off stage, using a West African talking drum to fill the room with a hypnotic rhythm; his presence is discreet but noticeably palpable as he backgrounds some poignant parts of the production throughout. There is something so absorbing about this entrance, grabbing your attention but not asking anything of you but to listen, and give respect to the stories you are about to hear.
We begin at the end, with grandmother Agbeke (Tomi Ogunjobi), mother Omotola (Christina Oshunniyi) walking on with daughter Aramide (Lebogang Fisher) in tow. Aramide proudly displays a ream of blue batik fabric that matches the walls that surround them and comments how good it would make for a piece of clothing. They are home, and the wooden stools and pots strewn about the space were a humble indicator to the unpretentious life these women lead. Just like that we are pulled into our first story, as Agbeke, takes us to Nigeria circa 1960 and recounts how she met her husband and subsequent father of her children. Her buoyant nature and warm smile filled my heart and reminded me of my own grandmother, and I was transported back to my childhood, sat cross legged and eager to listen.
We are taken through each woman’s yesteryears; moving from Nigeria to England and back again, dreams of university shattered, and cultural expectations from our parents all make themselves apparent throughout. There are stories that many women can recognise as their own; sacrifices made, secrets kept, and most glaringly, the abuse we have had to suffer at the hands of the men in our lives. However, amongst difficulty, Here’s What She Said to Me is a proud display of Nigerian culture and how it is passed down; skipping into the modern years of the 2000’s, it was beautifully refreshing to watch Fisher’s embodiment of a young Aramide growing up in Leeds having a vibrancy towards discovering her Nigerian heritage from the ground up, showing her mother and grandmother how beautiful it is to go back to where we come from with new eyes to look through.
There is something so absorbing about this entrance, grabbing your attention but not asking anything of you but to listen, and give respect to the stories you are about to hear.
Whilst I appreciate the ambition to scrapbook these stories together using only three actors playing several roles each, I did find myself getting a little lost in the execution. Keeping track of which character is playing who and going back and forth from present day back to the 80’s then 90’s and back again, I found that some heartfelt moments were not given enough time to breathe and have us really appreciate the words spoken. That being said, the performances still shined through; synchronised actions under red lights showing their collective pain make us sit up and take notice, Oshunniyi’s playful innocence as she bounded around on stage playing the fourteen-year-old Omotola was infectious, and Fisher’s portrayal of a tearful phone call Aramide makes to her mother was entrancing to watch.
Here’s What She Said to Me felt like family; I found it to be heartfelt and humbling. It shows us that storytelling between families is a powerful and important way to understand each other in new ways and reminds us that whilst our pasts may be muddied and at times chaotic, we can always come back to our roots, sit and listen.