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

Production of over 1,000 films per year each , Bollywood, the Indian Hindi film industry, and Nollywood, the Nigerian version, have long...


Production of over 1,000 films per year each, Bollywood, the Indian Hindi film industry, and Nollywood, the Nigerian version, have long overtaken the Californian dream-makers who think they are world-dominating in Hollywood.

It is against this change in the formation of world culture that “Nollywood dreams», Takes place a dizzying but wobbly comedy by Jocelyn Bioh.

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

There are complications, of course, but this is a 90 minute comedy, not a lot. Gbenga almost promised the role of Comfort to his former lover, Fayola Ogunleye (Emana Rachelle), a somewhat tarnished star known as “Nigerian Halle Berry with Tina Turner Legs”. And what about Wale Owusu (Ade Otukoya), “Nigeria’s sexiest born man,” who is expected to play the hero in the film and possibly Ayamma’s life as well? What, indeed!

If this sounds more like a soap opera than a movie, it’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 the films from this period, which she watched as a child, were low budget, “shot with very limited takes” and heavily reliant on improvisation.) Half the fun of directed by Saheem Ali for MCC Theater, which opened Thursday night, is to see how these drawbacks, when borrowed by West Africans, become selling points of a new aesthetic.

Or maybe an old one: “Nollywood Dreams” is spirited and laid back, with the stunning rhythms and narrative shortcuts of Hollywood in its early days, before the Sparkles turned into movies. On the changing set of Arnulfo Maldonado, the action takes place between three locations: the travel agency, Gbenga’s office, and a TV studio where beloved talk show host Adenikeh, “Nigerian Oprah Winfrey, ”conveniently interviews the other characters so they can provide bald updates on the plot.

Played by single actor Abena, who was a charming Anne Page in Bioh’s adaptation of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” this summer, Adenikeh illustrates the twin pleasures of the play. While translating Oprah’s American ways into flowery Nigerians, it also offers a distorted reflection on the original. It’s a good double flip that Bioh sticks throughout the piece: by making adore her characters to the American brands (Steven Spielberg, “Chicken Soup for the Soul”, NYU), she gently laughs at both.

It is now a registered trademark of Bioh. “School girls; Or, average African girls play“, a hit for MCC in 2017, snatches all the possible laughs (and some impossible ones) from its Ghanaian variation on the familiar tropes of bad girls – while offering, under the guise of the genre, a critique of cultural imperialism American. “Merry Wives” is equally complex, finding duplicates for Shakespeare’s characters among the African diasporic community of South Harlem.

If “Nollywood Dreams” isn’t as successful as its previous works, it’s at least in part because Bioh decided to keep the new piece as light as possible. Like Gbenga, who was told by American producers to “write films about what they thought was my experience” – that is, war and poverty – she was determined in “Nollywood Dreams” to be focus on what is “funny, wild and silly”. . ” In a recent New York Times profile, she recalled a literary director who, despite his admiration for the play, expressed surprise at his happy characters; hadn’t she read about Boko Haram?

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

A play about the pleasant fortune of early Nollywood films therefore receives a pleasant makeshift treatment: form follows dysfunction. Ali’s direction emphasizes color and comfort rather than sparkle and discipline. (Dede Ayite‘s costumes nail all four.) The downside is the occasional clutter, as in overly long audition scenes; “The Comfort Zone,” a love triangle in which a man has to choose between his haughty American wife and his humble Nigerian sweetheart, is so deliberately bad that we can’t record, as we are obviously supposed to, the skill of Ayamma to execute it.

But then Ayamma is the only character not to be forcibly drafted into Bioh’s No-Cost Entertainment program; Okuboyejo founds it with warmth and common sense. The others are all exaggerated caricatures, barely distinguishable from those of the films they make. (Even in the movies, people are rarely as magnetically smooth as Otukoya’s Wale, who can seduce simply by draping his arm over a sofa.) Sincere and hilarious, a kiss and a kiss.

Fair enough, but the best comedy nevertheless plants its feet in the same ground as tragedy. “Nollywood Dreams” obviously means doing it too; 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 injustice of society “or suffer like the poor” by refusing . “There is no middle ground,” she writes.

How “The Comfort Zone” – not to mention the room that contains it – represents this idea that I was unable to comprehend. As a subtext, it’s too underlying anyway to provide adequate ballast for the comedy. If only compared to the high standard of “School Girls”, it makes “Nollywood Dreams” feel slightly undocked – which wouldn’t matter if the American comedy was more like a movie. Nigerian. In that case, there would be 999 more productions like this, coming soon to a theater near you.

Nollywood dreams
Until November 28 at the MCC Theater, Manhattan; mcctheater.org. Duration: 1h30.

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