The delightful Nollywood Dreams, now playing at the MCC Theater, is playwright Jocelyn Bioh’s second off-Broadway play to shed some insightful and amusing light on modern African culture. Bioh’s previous play, School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play, took a look at the beauty pageant world through the eyes of high school girls in Ghana. In this case, it’s Nigerian cinema, commonly known as Nollywood. Both plays feature the intersection of African and American society as characters travel between the two countries. Bioh deftly blends serious issues into her heartwarming comedy that tells the tale of an ingenue determined to get her break on the silver screen. With its outstanding performances and a clever exposition device, the play is further proof that Bioh is a smart new voice in New York theater.
Our heroine Ayamma, played endearingly by Sandra Okuboyejo is starstruck and Nollywood crazy. It’s 1990s Lagos and an open-call audition with one of Nigeria’s leading film directors for his new production “Comfort Zone” seems to be the answer to Ayamma’s prayers. Her sister, Dede, a natural comic in Nana Mensah, is skeptical about her chances of success, but eager to change up their humdrum lives working in their parents’ travel agency with a vicarious thrill and the potential to meet the film’s leading actor. But before anything else can happen, they sit down to watch their favorite chat show–named for its host Adenikeh.
Here, Bioh employs a masterful and hilarious dramatic device directed with aplomb by Saheem Ali as the stage transforms from the sisters’ living room into the set of the TV show. Dominating proceedings and quite frankly stealing the show is Adenikeh, embodied with outstanding comic skill and charisma by Abena. Adenikeh is set up for us as the Oprah of Nigeria and her manner and style are high camp. Dede Ayite’s costume design comes to the fore in Adenikeh’s increasingly covetable outfits based on traditional Nigerian dress. But it’s her arch manner and consistently hilarious delivery that make Abena’s performance riveting to watch. The chat show format is also perfect for delivering characters’ back stories in an entertaining manner. Through the intermittent episodes of the TV show that punctuate the play’s action, we meet the director of the film (Charlie Hudson, III in a nuanced portrayal) and learn he has recently returned from a successful film career in the USA. Another episode introduces Fayola Ogunleye (Emana Rachelle in a spirited turn) as the somewhat faded star rumored to be a shoo-in for the lead role in “Comfort Zone”. While in a third episode, we meet the sister’s idol, the lead in the film Wale Owusu, here the flirty, twinkling Ade Otukoya.
As Ayamma navigates the cut-throat world of Nollywood however, we discover that things are not necessarily what we’ve been led to believe on Adenikeh’s chat show couch. Ayamma evolves from naïve ingenue to feisty first-timer who can actually act. With the judicious use of video inserts, we get a taste of what the film will be like when it hits the screen–moments that also bring the house down.
Both Gbenga, the film director, and Fayola, the actress, reveal that their years in America took a toll. Bioh allows for a reference to one of Nigeria’s most well-known and stereotypical exports, the internet scam. Fayola accuses the director of “sending emails to people saying you are “a royal prince who has millions of dollars trapped in an overseas account and just needs 5 thousand dollars to get it out?” in order to finance his film. There are also brief references to the prevalence of the casting couch, men who assume women will tolerate their cheating, and systemic racism in America that bring a welcome relevance and depth to what otherwise would be a wisp of a story.
Capturing a boom period for Nollywood, when films with dubious production values but mass appeal went straight to video, the play can avoid the influence of any social media as it is yet to be invented. That allows the talk show host to wield outsize power but, in this instance, also be the last to know about what is really going on among celebrities. Nollywood Dreams is not only a witty tale of the classic rags-to-riches variety, but it is also a reminder of the ability of real live theater to open our minds to new worlds and new talents.