Theater review by Naveen Kumar
The allure of celebrity is universal in Jocelyn Bioh’s Nigerian comedy Nollywood Dreams. It’s the early 1990s in Lagos, and sisters Ayamma (Sandra Okuboyejo) and Dede (Nana Mensah) work at the family travel agency as their hearts and minds wander far away. Ayamma longs to break into movies, while Dede thumbs gossip rags and worships at the altar of Days of Our Lives, devoted to fame and fictions. Nigeria’s film industry is on the rise, favoring soapy plots, low budgets and pretty faces. There’s an open call for a new leading lady; once Dede learns the role is opposite craze-inducing heartthrob Wale Owusu (Ade Otukoya), the sisters team up to land Ayamma the part.
A broad and uncomplicated comedy ensues, populated with familiar entertainment types, including a fading diva (Emana Rachelle), a director of questionable integrity (Charlie Hudson III), and a daytime talk-show host (Abena) prone to mugging and masticating her words with a showy flourish. Named after its stateside counterpart, Nollywood reflects both an import of Western influence and a claim to Nigerian national pride. Bioh mines the tension of this cultural exchange for humor, while also pricking the common illusion that Hollywood (or America by extension) holds out to African immigrants: that leaving home is essential to fulfilling personal promise.
Director Saheem Ali’s production is handsome and fluid, flowing seamlessly on Arnulfo Maldonado’s multi-faced scenic design. But it’s the deft and lively performances from the cast, and characteristically knockout costumes by Dede Ayite, that animate the story with irresistible vibrancy. If Bioh’s plot seems somehow both predictable and far-fetched, that appears to reflect the style of Nollywood movies, as evidenced by a hilarious coda that offers a taste of them here. But Bioh aims for something more than the tickle of nostalgia and an homage to the form, pushing audiences to think twice about how we imagine the lives of others. Here, fantasy can be a means of escape, but it can also be a bridge to greater understanding.
Nollywood Dreams. MCC Theater (Off Broadway). By Jocelyn Bioh. Directed by Saheem Ali. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.