When a random jingle from a play you saw recently lodges itself in your head for the 48 hours that have passed since seeing said play, chances are that’s because the tune either is incredibly annoying or feels somehow just right. In the case of Nollywood Dreams, a lovely comedy headlining at Round House Theatre, it’s the latter. Largely because the song cuts straight to the heart of the play, I have not been able to stop singing “Adenikeh! Bringing love into your home…” since I walked out of the theater.
Nollywood Dreams follows Ayamma Okafor, a young woman with big dreams, longing for more than working at her parents’ travel agency in Lagos, Nigeria, the same town in which she grew up. Each day, she watches Adenikeh’s talk show, the one with the jingle, with her sister. When famous director Gbenga Ezie is featured on the show, publicizing an open casting call for the lead in his new film The Comfort Zone, Ayamma knows this is her chance to break into the Nigerian film scene, or Nollywood. From there, she prepares with her sister, meets some surprising new faces, and, of course, navigates a few twists and turns as writer Jocelyn Bioh details Ayamma’s adventure into show business in this gleeful piece.
Bioh is a truly warm and wonderful writer, her talent showcased not just in her ability to write convincing comedy, but in how much she invests in the humanity of each of her characters. In Nollywood Dreams, these individuals, their motivations, and their dreams have the spotlight, and Bioh loves each one so much that even the ones who seem undeserving of our sympathy have it by the end of the show. Bioh is incredibly adept at forming full people as she intermixes comedy and melodrama, reveals new depth here and there, and ultimately, builds to a happy ending in Nollywood. What is all the more impressive, though, is how this combination of humor and nuance is grasped and supported by Director Raymond O. Caldwell and his fantastic cast.
Caldwell works alongside each actor in the show to suffuse Nollywood Dream’s characters with an air of exaggeration and complete authenticity all at once, ensuring that we see their various facets, flaws, and strengths alike. First, there is Ernaisja Curry who is a delight to watch in the starring role of Ayamma, bringing vivacity to the aspiring actor, neither overplaying nor underplaying her desire to get to Nollywood, so that we feel her youthful yearning for change as well as her care for her family and hometown. Renea S. Brown steals the show as Ayamma’s sister, Dede, playing such a convincing practical, and protective older sister that her comedic scenes are the most captivating of all, surprising yet honest, as so much great comedy is. Joel Ashur (as Wale Owusu) is the total sweetheart of the play, loveable in his shy candor, and Yao Dogbe (as Gbenga Ezie) and Yetunde Felix-Ukwu (as Fayola Ogunleye), who could have interpreted their roles as plain villains, bring depth and charisma to their roles. Finally, there is Jacqueline Youm as the vibrant and enthusiastic Adenikeh, the talk show host who brings warmth and unfettered curiosity to the stage each time she graces it.
And that stage matches the cast in personality, featuring a gorgeously put-together carousel of locations at the center that turns to take us from the Okafor family travel agency to the revered offices of Nollywood studios, to Adenikeh’s gorgeous pink soundstage. Scenic design (Jonathan Dahm Robertson) brings the audience into the world of Lagos as well as into the hopeful feelings of the late 1990s. The projections (Kelly Colburn) work together with the scenic design to directly engage spectators as Adenikeh’s live audience while at the same time peeking through on the small TV in the Okafor family offices to fantastic effect, a brilliant use of space and resources. Costume design (Brandee Mathies) is also astonishing, combining late ’90s trends with gorgeous West African (perhaps Ankara) fabrics. Adenikeh’s design is particularly stunning, with the talk show host wearing a new set of colors each time we see her.
The excellent writing, the earnest performances, and impressive technical elements on their own are enough to solidify Nollywood Dreams as an enjoyable show, but what pushes it over the edge, what makes it truly special, is the way that these puzzle pieces are united by Jocelyn Bioh’s vision for her work, bolstering her insight and outlook every chance it gets. As an audience member, it is so clear that actors, designers, and director are all on the same page, exerting so much effort to align with the hopes Bioh has for her work: to expand the knowledge of “what Africa is and what African people are” while creating work that feels universal. In her interview with dramaturg Naysan Mojgani, she states: “I want my work to feel so inviting, because everyone’s invited to that experience.” And with all the love that this production of Nollywood Dreams brings to its cast, crew, audience, and playwright, that warm, connected feeling is undeniable.
Running Time: One hour 40 minutes, with no intermission.
Nollywood Dreams plays through July 3, 2022, at Round House Theater – 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD. For tickets ($55–$78), call the box office at 240-644-1100 or go online.
The Nollywood Dreams program is available online here.
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.
Jocelyn Bioh on what’s so funny about ‘Nollywood Dreams’ at Round House (interview by Nicole Hertvik)