The Nollywood film industry, in all its glitz and glamour, is the subject of Jocelyn Bioh’s new play, Nollywood Dreams. And no, Nollywood — with an N — is not a typo. While Hollywood — with an H — may be the first thing to pop into Americans’ minds when we think of movies, our homegrown industry faces competition in recent years from India’s Bollywood (currently the world’s most prolific maker of films) and now Nollywood. The West African film industry — called Nollywood because most films are produced in Nigeria — has blossomed in mere decades from producing low-budget melodramas featuring dubious acting filmed with shaky camcorders into a powerhouse industry fueling the world’s second-largest movie market with sleek, professional films.
But it was Nollywood’s early days in the 1990s that inspired Bioh to write Nollywood Dreams, a play she describes to DCTA as a “love letter to this scrappy film industry.”
“Nollywood films are a staple for all of us first-generation kids in America,” says Bioh, whose parents immigrated to New York City from Ghana in 1968. “They are like our Golden Girls or Friends. These are the movies that were always on in the background when I was growing up: at the hairstylist, at our Aunty’s house, or when we went to Ghana on summer vacation.”
Nollywood Dreams tells the story of Ayamma, a young girl who works at her parents’ travel agency in Lagos, Nigeria, in the 1990s. Ayamma gets the chance to audition for the lead female role in a film featuring a well-known celebrity hunk whose good looks and fame make Nigerian girls weak in the knees. But in auditioning, Ayamma must go head to head with an established starlet described as “The Nigerian Halle Berry,” who will defend her leading-lady status at all costs.
“The entry point is the familiar story of a young ingenue trying to break into the industry and then comedy and drama ensue,” Bioh says. She hopes the familiar storyline will entice American audiences to take a chance on a story set in Africa, a place that is often misunderstood and generalized in the minds of Americans.
Bioh references that lack of understanding through her unique brand of clever comedy. “Comedy is just a funny way of being serious,” she says. For example, while working at her parents’ travel agency, Ayamma fields phone calls from curious but uninformed tourists who think of Africa more as an exotic foreign fantasy than multiple diverse countries. One caller wants to book a trip to the Serengeti — a national park that is further from Nigeria than New York is from Los Angeles. “Wrong part of Africa,” Ayamma sighs.
Round House Theater, which scored big with Bioh’s multi-award-winning School Girls: The African Mean Girls Play in 2018, is once again betting on Bioh, producing the first regional production of Nollywood Dreams since it premiered off-Broadway at MCC Theater last fall. While Nollywood Dreams was written years before School Girls, the play faced challenges including racism and a global pandemic before finally finding a theater to produce the play.
“At first, a lot of theaters didn’t get it,” Bioh says of Nollywood Dreams. “They didn’t understand what I was doing with the comedy. After workshopping it for years, one theater administrator said what I think everyone else was too afraid to say. She asked me why everyone was so happy and said that whenever she reads about Nigeria in the 1990s it’s about corrupt governments and Boko Haram. She was confused that a play set in Africa could be about people who were happy. I mean, America is a shitshow right now and we are still moving on with our everyday lives. It feels crazy that people can’t even imagine that people living in African countries would be able to do that too.”
But things have changed since Bioh wrote Nollywood Dreams in 2013. The success with School Girls (a comedy set in Ghana) proved that American audiences — and DC-area audiences in particular — had an appetite for Bioh’s brand of endearing comedy depicting the everyday life of young West Africans. In addition, streaming services like YouTube and Netflix have recently made it a lot easier for Americans to access Nollywood films. And members of the West African diaspora are more frequently represented in media across the globe (Ncuti Gatwa’s portrayal of Eric in Netflix’s Sex Education comes to mind). “I think the play has met the times a little bit and that is a thrill for me,” Bioh says.
The plot of Nollywood Dreams follows the structure of a Nollywood film so that people can get the Nollywood experience even if they have never seen one of the movies. As with all her plays, Bioh hopes Nollywood Dreams will encourage people to “learn something new about other people or themselves and to think about the implicit bias they may have about African people or the African diaspora. Maybe that could be a catalyst to shift people’s perceptions.”
But mostly, Bioh wants people to come to her plays to laugh, have a good time, and forget about whatever is worrying them for 90 minutes. “Because fun and joy are radical too.”
Running Time: One hour 40 minutes with no intermission.
COVID Safety: Patrons must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination upon entry and wear masks while attending performances, with limited exceptions. Click here for full details.
Curious about Nollywood films?
We asked Jocelyn Bioh to recommend her favorite Nollywood films from the early days of the industry to today:
“I have so many but I’ll say two. One from the early days of Nollywood that I am even playing with in my script is a movie called Beyonce the President’s Daughter (2006). You can find it on YouTube. It’s a quintessential (in good ways and bad), classic early Nollywood film. Of the newer films, I really like a movie called The Wedding Party (2016). It’s a big wedding where comedy and drama ensue and it’s a really good indicator of how Nollywood has evolved in terms of the look and aesthetic and sophistication. You get real high/low from those recommendations!”