Review: NOLLYWOOD DREAMS at Round House

A 'rags to riches rom-com' from Jocelyn Bioh

By: Jun. 15, 2022
Review: NOLLYWOOD DREAMS at Round House
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The world is quickly becoming hip to Nollywood.

Netflix offers dozens of titles from Nigeria's prolific film industry, which at one point was second only to India in the number of films produced (usually straight to video).

An exhibit of glamorous portraits of its stars and filmmakers Iké Udé is on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art.

And at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda offers a light inside look at the Nigerian film industry with the rom-com "Nollywood Dreams."

It's likely to be a crowd-pleaser, since it's from Jocelyn Bioh, who's earlier "School Girls: Or, the African Mean Girls Play" was a hit at the Round House when it reopened following renovations in 2019.

"Nollywood Dreams" has a longer lineage, but was only first produced in New York in November. The Round House is its second production.

Billed as a "Rags to Riches Rom-Com," you pretty much know what you're getting going in.

The playwright says she encountered her first Nollywood films in Washington Heights nail shops and if they are churned out at the rate of Hallmark movies, they also must provide the same sort of comfort with expected storylines and happy endings.

That's the case both in the story at hand, and in the film they're trying to make, about a Hollywood star and a local girl named Comfort (title: "The Comfort Zone").

The play centers on Ayamma Okafor (Ernaisja Curry), who works at her family's travel agency in Lagos with her sister Dede (Renea S. Brown), but dreams of becoming an actress.

She's very excited about an open audition for a film by hot Nigerian director Gbenga Ezie (Yao Dogbe) for a romantic film opposite screen star Wale Owusu (Joel Ashur). Complications come in the form of an established Nollywood star seeking a comeback (Yetunde Felix-Ukwu) and a surprising amount of narrative comes on the set of the daytime sow of a local Oprah-like personality Adenikeh (Jacqueline Youm).

As the sisters, Curry and Brown are a delight to watch as they banter, dish and needle one another in the office. With big personalities and great timing they pretty much carry the play (and generally roll over the men).

Occasionally the reactions of the two border on exaggerated, but when Ayamma begins rehearsing for the audition we see just how exaggerated acting can become. It's apparently just what the director requires, as we see from a glimpse of the finished film late in the play.

But it begs the question: Are we sending up the excess of Nollywood rom-coms or celebrating it? And the underlying story of the aspiring actress and dashing movie star is only a few degrees less silly in its simple story and its borderline overacting, directed by Raymond O. Caldwell.

Bioh likes to infuse her comedies with serious issues. In "School Girls," it was coloration. And when the seriousness comes in "Nollywood Dreams," it's a bit of a jolt - like the love triangle in the movie they're trying to make, it turns out the director and the experienced actress also had a rift when one went to America to break into the film industry, but was bitterly disappointed by racism and lack of opportunity.

That seems to simply slow down the action of a play that's already getting a little long (with no intermission) for how light its premise is.

"Nollywood Dreams" boasts a remarkable set by Jonathan Dahm Robertson, with big, wooden HOLLYWOOD style lettering above, and a turntable stage that switches from travel agency, to daytime TV set to film office. All that ambition can trip you up, though, and early on during opening night, the stage refused to move because of an electrical "brownout."

It was repaired and reset a few minutes later and, pros that they are, Brown and Curry ad libbed jokes about it. Of the two, Curry is as enchanting as a romantic lead is supposed to be, but Brown stole the show when, upon meeting her movie idol Wale, she is reduced to a nervous high-pitched giggle even she can't understand (it garnered her spontaneous applause upon her exit, a high point of the night).

Applause was a little more unclear during the scenes on the daytime TV set. Lighting designer Harold P. Burgess II flashed signs requesting APPLAUSE, promoting well-wishing opening nighters to follow through, but sound designer Nick Hernandez also piped in recorded clapping, along with appropriate, exaggerated oohs and aahs.

As the TV host, Youm was as excessive as required and a lot of fun to watch. But if Nollywood is as prolific as it is, how could so much time of her daytime show be taken with the ins and outs of one particular (and laughably terrible) film?

Bigger than her personality was her attire, and Brandee Mathies rises to the occasion in not only every over-the-top headdress and gown of the host, but in every bit of colorful and vibrant costuming in the show - providing reason enough to get a ticket.

Nollywood Dreams continues at the Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda through July 3.

Photo credit: Yao Dogbe, Ernaisja Curry, Renea Brown and Joel Ashur in "Nollywood Dreams" at Round House Theatre. Photos by Margot Schulman Photography.


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