While viewers members for “Nollywood Dreams”—a brand new play by Jocelyn Bioh, directed by Saheem Ali, at MCC Theatre—have been submitting in and the set lights have been nonetheless dim, a energetic combine of West African pop songs performed, priming the gang for a great time. One tune, “Odo,” by the Ghanaian singer Samini, got here on, and shoulders began to shake. My seatmate on the theatre that evening, who was born in Jamaica and raised in Brooklyn, was bowled over by how a lot Samini’s voice evoked that of the legendary dancehall artist Buju Banton, and the way a lot the observe sounded prefer it might have been cooked up someplace in Kingston. Indeed, Samini calls his music “African dancehall,” an inevitable-sounding however hard-won mix of kinds cast on either side of the Atlantic.

That diasporic mélange—a product of troubled nationwide and colonial histories and irrepressible creativity—is the theme that hums excitingly below “Nollywood Dreams.” Set in Lagos, Nigeria, within the Technicolor nineteen-nineties (a decade that doesn’t really feel so way back to some of us, however which has develop into an more and more match topic for the lengthy lens of historical past, by way of artwork), it tells a narrative whose backdrop is the early upsurge of Nollywood, that burst of off-kilter, melodramatic, cinematic invention that has, within the many years since, helped make Nigeria a formidable engine of world leisure.

Ayamma Okafor (Sandra Okuboyejo) and Dede Okafor (Nana Mensah) are sisters who work—or, in Dede’s case, pantomime languidly at working—at their dad and mom’ journey company. It’s a spot for awkward encounters between well-off, empty-headed foreigners and an Africa they exoticize however barely respect. Somebody calls asking to go on safari in Nigeria. “Eh, the Serengeti is not in Nigeria,” Ayamma says. “No, no, wrong part of Africa.” “Africa is a country to them,” Dede replies. Ayamma and Dede have a finely honed comedian patter—Ayamma as earnest straight girl, Dede dropping a punch line a minute. They’re like Lucy and Ethel in Lagos, a two-woman present unto themselves, earlier than the concept of fame ever comes beguilingly calling. Ayamma desires of being an actor, and the dream is kicked into craving overdrive when a well-known Nigerian director, Gbenga Ezie (Charlie Hudson III), places out a national casting name for the main feminine function in his new movie “The Comfort Zone.” Dede’s dream is to marry the movie star Wale Owusu (Ade Otukoya), a sort of Denzel Washington on the continent, who’s Gbenga’s already-chosen main man.

Ayamma’s audition course of—which pits her hilariously in opposition to Fayola Ogunleye (Emana Rachelle), a longtime starlet whom the tabloids name “the Nigerian Halle Berry with Tina Turner legs”—tugs the story towards its finish. The auditions are containers not just for plot however for stylistic tics and literary tropes that followers know to anticipate from Nollywood titles: faces contorted into shock after dramatic revelations, drastic closeups of the sort that populate present meme pages like that of the Instagram phenomenon @yung.nollywood, all mandated by the screenplay that Gbenga reads aloud within the rehearsal room.

The present is fast and bodacious, humorous and well-built. It avoids smoothing itself down into an onstage sitcom—a doable danger in arms much less certain than Bioh’s—by retaining its concentrate on the various varieties of efficiency that it takes to face up a brand new trade, by hook or criminal. Ayamma and Dede are followers and every day watchers of a chat present hosted by an interviewer-cum-gossipmonger named Adenikeh (Abena). As inspiration-insistent as Oprah Winfrey and as excited about a scorching dish as Wendy Williams, Adenikeh is, in some methods, the centrifuge of Bioh’s advanced ruminations on the character of Nigeria’s emergence on the world business scene. The couches on which she conducts her interviews glide ahead from Arnulfo Maldonado’s environment friendly, modular set, and sit practically on the sting of the stage, making a shallow area nearly like a TV display screen. Adenikeh is a aware however barely off imitator of Western presentation kinds. At one level, the director Gbenga stands atop a sofa, considerably unhinged by put-on pleasure, like Tom Cruise atop Oprah’s. Adenikeh’s Nigerian accent is warped by affected British pronunciations—these makes an attempt to sound fancy play as some of the present’s most dependable sources of comedy. Days later, I’m nonetheless saying the phrase “Nigeria” in her bonkers half-Londonese—“Noy-gee-ree-awh”—and laughing to myself.

Abena is a unbelievable performer, capturing Adenikeh’s cultural-ladder-climbing by with a sort of bodily and attitudinal canniness. You can see her facial mugging as an try to finish a sort of migration over the tv waves. Adenikeh makes a degree of asking Gbenga whether or not “The Comfort Zone”—which is a few Nigerian who moved to America, took a spouse there, and is making an attempt to lie his means again into the graces of his Nigerian ex—is in any respect autobiographical. The fraught reply, which brings Nigeria’s current glories into contact with some of its extra shameful sources of worldwide infamy, is later revealed at Gbenga’s studio, throughout a number of extremely charged conversations that observe, and instantly echo, the snippets of the screenplay we’ve heard throughout auditions. The result’s a sort of doubling: hyper-drama, all gesture and bugged-out eyes, rubs up in opposition to a subtler, extra devastating, and, essentially, half-hidden realism.

“Nollywood Dreams” is all about adjacencies, nonetheless unlikely or distant. The tempting affect of America retains intruding on the lives and imaginations of Ayamma and Dede and the clawing strivers by whom they’re surrounded. Gbenga is aware of that America isn’t all it’s cracked as much as be. But the play—particularly in a quick, wild foray into video that reveals how gonzo Bioh’s thoughts is, how expert and, extra vital, recreation these actors are, and the way exactly aimed this present’s dramaturgy and analysis course of should have been—proves that the imagining, and the artwork it yields, is price it, all the identical.


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