Ghanaian-American playwright Jocelyn Bioh (School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play) continues to prove why she is the preeminent queen of African comedy. Exciting the palate of American audiences with works tastier than jollof rice, her new play Nollywood Dreams showcases her wit and masterful pen. Directed by Saheem Ali, the dynamic duo who previously collaborated on Merry Wives of Windsor at the Public’s free Shakespeare in The Park, tag team again to bring audiences another hysterical work filled with drama, quick-witted puns, and rich African heritage.
While Nollywood (Nigeria) is the second largest film industry — coming in right after Bollywood (India) — its cultural impact is quickly gaining the attention of Americans. Bioh’s Nollywood Dreams gives New York theatre audiences a bird’s-eye view of the makings of a Nollywood film and the birth of a rising star. Through Arnulfo Maldonado’s flawless set design, the MCC Theatre audience is transported first class to Lagos, Nigeria and introduced to the city’s abundant culture. The play follows a young, vibrant Ayamma (Sandra Okuboyejo) and her feisty sister Dede (Nana Mensah) who barely work at the family’s local travel agency and dream of no longer running the family business. Together Okuboyejo and Mensah have a natural friendship chemistry onstage. They’re authentic and engaging, beautifully interacting like siblings with comical moments of childlike play. Their lines are laced with sharp historical facts that make the audience laugh out loud and also consider their own thoughts. For example, Africa is seen as the world’s number one destination for safaris but it's also important to remember that it’s a continent made up of 54 very diverse countries. And those who are not familiar with the cultural and logistical differences tend to lump everything and everyone together.
In 100 minutes, Arnulfo Maldonado's set moves seamlessly through home office, Nollywood film studio, and talk-show set, laying the framework for each moment of the show. Each member of the ensemble creates moments of hoots and hollers from the audience, but Adenikeh (an entertaining Abena), the glamorous talk-show host, or the “Nigerian Oprah Winfrey,” often steals the show. She serves exaggerated movements and a gossipy interviewing style with the cast that gives new life to the production every second she occupies the stage. She gorgeously appears each time in a new eye-catching African garb, delicately assembled by costume designer Dede Ayete. Ayete’s immaculate design pays homage to the rich textures and prints adorned in the streets of Nigeria. For this production, she intricately blends urban American streetwear made popular in the 1990s with traditional African dress that offers its own story.
While the text offers cut-rate highlight reels of an early Nollywood film production in process, Bioh gives viewers context through comedy of an industry often overlooked by Americans who believe Hollywood is the magnum opus. Audiences may arrive for a night of belly-bursting comedy, but find themselves leaving with a history lesson wrapped in a sitcom.
Nollywood Dreams is running at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theatre Space through November 28. Get tickets to Nollywood Dreams on New York Theatre Guide.
Photo credit: Sandra Okuboyejo and Nana Mensah in Nollywood Dreams. (Photo by Daniel J. Vasquez)