Review: In ‘Nollywood Dreams,’ a Star and an Industry Are Born

Producing more than 1,000 movies a year each, Bollywood, India’s Hindi film industry, and Nollywood, the Nigerian version, have long outpaced the California dream-makers who think they rule the world in Hollywood.

It is against this shift in the shaping of global culture that “Nollywood Dreams,” a giddy if wobbly comedy by Jocelyn Bioh, plays out.

But the template is pure MGM: Our sweet heroine, Ayamma Okafor (Sandra Okuboyejo), works, along with her tart sister Dede (Nana Mensah), in their parents’ travel agency in Lagos. When the rising film director Gbenga Ezie (Charlie Hudson III) announces open auditions for the title role in his latest project, “The Comfort Zone” — yes, there’s a title role — Ayamma sees a chance to “be like the women in all of those Hollywood films I spent my life watching” and become a star herself.

There are complications, of course, but this being a 90-minute comedy, not many. Gbenga has all but promised the role of Comfort to his former lover, Fayola Ogunleye (Emana Rachelle), a somewhat tarnished star known as “the Nigerian Halle Berry with Tina Turner Legs.” And what of Wale Owusu (Ade Otukoya), Nigeria’s “Sexiest Man Born,” slated to play the hero in the movie and perhaps in Ayamma’s life as well? What, indeed!

If this sounds more like a soap opera than a film, that’s because Nollywood in the early 1990s, when the play is set, was still in its artistic infancy. (Bioh writes in an introduction to the script that movies of that period, which she watched as a child, were low budget, “shot with very limited takes” and heavily dependent on improvisation.) Half the fun of Saheem Ali’s staging for MCC Theater, which opened on Thursday night, is in seeing how those drawbacks, when borrowed by West Africans, become selling points of a new aesthetic.

Or perhaps an old one: “Nollywood Dreams” is spirited and casual, with the knockabout rhythms and narrative shortcuts of Hollywood in its early years, before flickers became films. On Arnulfo Maldonado’s shape-shifting set, the action cuts between three locations: the travel agency, Gbenga’s office and a television studio where the beloved talk-show host Adenikeh, “the Nigerian Oprah Winfrey,” conveniently interviews the other characters so they can provide bald updates on the plot.

As played by the one-named actor Abena, who was a lovely Anne Page in Bioh’s adaptation of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” this summer, Adenikeh exemplifies the play’s twinned pleasures. While translating Oprah’s American mannerisms into florid Nigerian ones, she also offers a warped fun-house reflection on the original. That’s a neat double flip Bioh sticks throughout the play: In having her characters worship American brands (Steven Spielberg, “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” N.Y.U.) she pokes gentle fun at both.

That’s by now a Bioh trademark. “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play,” a hit for MCC in 2017, wrings all possible laughs (and a few impossible ones) out of its Ghanaian variation on familiar mean-girl tropes — while also offering, underneath the genre trappings, a critique of American cultural imperialism. “Merry Wives” is similarly complex, finding doubles for Shakespeare’s characters among the African diasporic community of South Harlem.

If “Nollywood Dreams” is not quite as successful as those previous works, it’s at least in part because Bioh set out to keep the new play as light as possible. Like Gbenga, told by producers in the United States to “write movies about what they assumed was my experience” — which is to say, war and poverty — she was determined in “Nollywood Dreams” to focus on what’s “funny and wild and silly.” In a recent profile in The New York Times, she recalled a literary manager who despite admiring the play expressed surprise at its happy characters; hadn’t she read about Boko Haram?

I am grateful that Bioh declined to interpolate that Nigerian terrorist group into the action. Too few playwrights have a gift for comedy, and she is the rare one who not only provides zingers but also the structures in which they make sense.

A play about the enjoyable makeshiftness of early Nollywood films therefore gets an enjoyably makeshift treatment: Form follows dysfunction. Ali’s direction emphasizes color and comfort over snap and discipline. (Dede Ayite’s costumes nail all four.) The downside is occasional bagginess, as in the overlong audition scenes; “The Comfort Zone,” a love triangle in which a man must choose between his haughty American wife and his humble Nigerian sweetheart, is so deliberately bad that we cannot register, as we’re evidently meant to, Ayamma’s skill in performing it.

But then Ayamma is the only character not forcibly enlisted in Bioh’s fun-at-all-costs agenda; Okuboyejo grounds her with warmth and common sense. The others are all over-the-over-the-top caricatures, hardly distinguishable from those in the films they make. (Even in movies, people are rarely as magnetically smooth as Otukoya’s Wale, who can seduce just by draping his arm on a couch.) To bring the point home, Bioh buttons the play with a spoof trailer for “The Comfort Zone” that’s both sincere and hilarious, a kiss and a kiss-off.

Fair enough, but the best comedy nevertheless plants its feet in the same ground as tragedy. “Nollywood Dreams” evidently means to do so as well; Bioh sees in “The Comfort Zone” the “sad duality” of a country in which people have the choice to “live like the rich” by participating in the unjustness of society “or suffer like the poor” by refusing. “There is,” she writes, “no middle.”

How “The Comfort Zone” — let alone the play that contains it — represents that idea I was unable to fathom. As subtext it’s in any case too sub to provide adequate ballast for the comedy. If only against the high standard of “School Girls,” that makes “Nollywood Dreams” feel slightly unmoored — which wouldn’t matter if American comedy were more like Nigerian film. In that case there would be 999 more productions like it, coming soon to a theater near you.

Nollywood Dreams
Through Nov. 28 at the MCC Theater, Manhattan; mcctheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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