Nollywood Dreams

A Riotous Look at Making It in the Nigerian Film Industry

By: - Oct 06, 2023

From the time that the American movie industry settled into the Los Angeles area, Hollywood became the universal symbol of movie magic and glamor.  Its global sweep can be seen in the identifications of the two largest movie producing countries in the world.  First, India’s movie industry, noted internationally for colorful action-romance musicals with huge dance numbers, is commonly known as Bollywood – a portmanteau of Bombay and Hollywood.  Subsequently, Nigeria’s bustling dream world, an amalgam of many film genres in many languages, has become known as Nollywood.

Ghanian-American playwright Jocelyn Bioh pays homage to West African society and film in her play “Nollywood Dreams.”  Hilarity overflows from beginning to end as flamboyant characters performed by outstanding actors make the dialog crackle.  Set in Lagos, Nigeria, in the ‘90s, the story centers on Ayamma Okafor (played by Angel Adedokun), who hopes to break into show business and responds to an open audition for the lead in a movie.

Although she is no wallflower, Ayamma’s encounters are with dominant people of greater stature than hers, starting with her voluble older sister, Dede (played by Brittany Nicole Sims).  The two work in the family travel agency, and while DeDe wisecracks and cackles on the phone; watches soap operas religiously; and reads gossip magazines assiduously, the more grounded Ayamma does most of the work and acts as a gofer.

Of course, the plot wouldn’t go anywhere if Ayamma didn’t get an audition.  When she does, she interacts with important men in the industry - Director Gbenga (Tre’Vonne Bell) and heartthrob Wale (Jordan Covington). However, a gushing and enthusiastic Dede is always there to disrupt Ayamma’s progress and insinuate herself into the proceedings.

In the audition, Ayamma reads with Fayola (Anna Marie Sharpe), a condescending diva who had been successful in Nigeria’s nascent movie industry but who was unable to make a mark in the U.S.  The latter belittles the ingenue, who shows her backbone by confidently returning the diva’s unpleasantries.  Initially starstruck by the men in the movies, she later demonstrates that she is not a wistful dreamer, but a strong woman who is not going to kowtow to anyone (except her sister!).

Interspersed with Ayamma’s saga are scenes from a talk show hosted by an over-the-top Adenikeh (Tanika Baptiste), who is like a probing, discomfiting, Nigerian Oprah but with an effusive and demonstrative personality.  A final thread involves threatened blackmail by one character as one of the others is associated with the notorious real-life email scams in which a purported Nigerian prince asks for money to be sent to him.  Other embarrassing secrets are known as well.

It is great to see a play that deals with African society beyond those of Athol Fugard (who is a literary giant) or others with heavy handed themes.  What “Nollywood Dreams” does not deal with is broader endemic issues like the casting couch, gender matters, or thematic material.  It is a farcical send-up that is to be enjoyed like cotton candy.  Few of the situations are inherently humorous, but the highly animated actors deliver with crack timing.  It is noteworthy that the energy is driven by the female characters, whereas the males seem a bit underwritten.

The good news / bad news about the play is that it is universal, and with the smallest of changes could be set in any number of countries.  The familiarity makes it comforting, yet the small differences give it an exotic appeal.  The “local color” that most comes through is the clipped British-based spoken English (Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe as dialect coach) and the beautiful costumery (designed by Jasmine Milan Williams) that adds another dimension.

Bill English’s sets at San Francisco Playhouse usually stand out, and this is no exception.  Three locales are represented by separate sets on the revolving stage, and while none are especially complex, the detail in the wall pieces gives a differentiating sense of place.  Margo Hall, who is usually associated with more dramatic plays, shows her versatility and directs with great skill.

“Nollywood Dreams” is written by Jocelyn Bioh, produced by San Francisco Playhouse, and is performed on its stage at 450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA through November 4, 2023.