Hello Listeners! My name is Iyvon E. and I am a Nigerian-American first-generation immigrant, theater producer, and dramaturg. And this is my 3Views purview on Nollywood Dreams by Jocelyn Bioh. This purview is titled: What Nollywood Means to Me
In a 2003 trilogy, a jealous and nefarious woman plots to kill her sister, steal her sister’s husband and her sister’s children. She is successful for two of the three films before every facet of her life begins to fall apart. It’s definitely a drama, maybe a parable - and sometimes unwittingly a comedy. Now I know this may sound like the beginnings, the middle, or the end of a long-winded Greek drama, but it’s not. It’s so much better - It’s Nollywood. I’m not sure I remember all the details or what happens to who or what in that trilogy. But I do remember after watching part three; I promised myself and God that I would never kill my sister with a poisonous orange, covet her husband and spend years trying to inevitably conceive a cursed child that would eventually be my evil downfall. (Okay, so maybe there’s a chance that I just gave the plot to three entirely different Nollywood movies I mashed together, but we’re gonna go with it)If you are like me - a diasporic Nigerian who grew up in the US during the 90s and 2000s - you know about the explosion of Nigerian (and by large African) narratives that dominated our family’s televisions. A selection of Nollywood movies wrapped in DVD covers that looked shoddily photocopied by whoever had the best printer with color ink would flood the African market and post-church hawking. Titles reminiscent of popular Western copyrights like Tom & Jerry and later on Beyonce and Rihanna: Two Beauties at War dominated the market. On Sundays, after several hours of church, my family would heat up leftover jollof rice and meat for lunch, put on a couple of Nollywood movies, and oscillate between getting ready for school the next day, getting our hair done, all while watching the narratives on screen. I remember gathering around the table to eat a traditional family-style dinner that usually featured that week’s newest batch of mildly spicy egusi or okra soup with a side pounded yam. I grew accustomed to the sound of loud Nigerians doing their best (God bless them) acting. And I have grown fond of the low-fi video quality evident of the quickly made, manufactured, distributed films.
Of course, if you watched enough Nollywood, you ended up with your slate of favorite actors and actresses, and you could guarantee that you would be entertained. Much like the Hollywood giants of this period: Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Morgan Freeman, Halle Berry - Nigerian actors, and actresses Nkem Owoh, Patience Ozokwor, Pete Edochie, and Genevieve Nnaji reigned supreme not just in Nigeria, but in the continent and western diaspora as a whole. They were telling the stories of small village people, treacherous kings, lovesick couples, in English, pidgin English, or in one of the hundreds of local languages spoken in Nigeria and greater Africa. (Oh by the way, if you’re interested in watching that movie I mentioned earlier, it’s called Blood Sisters and stars the effervescent Genevieve Nnaji, who was referred to as the Julia Roberts of Africa by Oprah Winfrey).
As I reflect on the personal significance of Nollywood, I also want to give gratitude and appreciation to Jocelyn Bioh for what she has done for telling African stories on American theater stages. School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play is probably my favorite comedy. Bioh is an excellent crafter of experiences that feel intimately of the motherland, yet universal to (what I think at least are) the insecurities we wrestle within ourselves here, abroad in the United States. School Girls showcased the issue with eurocentric beauty standards and colorism and set it in the cutthroat world of a Ghanian school pageant. Nollywood Dreams, produced by MCC Theatre, showcases not an issue, but the will of a people to be unyielding and passionate about their dreams - and this time, it’s set in the cutthroat world of the entertainment industry.
The relatively straightforward plot is set in the 1990s and tells the story of Ayamma, a wannabe actress who works at her parent’s travel agency alongside her busybody, pop-culture enthusiast sister, Dede. Ayamma hears about the production of the newest film, In The Comfort Zone helmed by Nollywood producer/director Gbenga and decides she wants to audition for the lead female romantic role opposite heartthrob actor, Wale. Her efforts are challenged by former child star Fayola, who is trying to make her way back to the limelight after a failed acting career in the US. Punctuating the fervent energy surrounding celebrity and entertainment culture is talk show host Adenikeh, a gregarious personality with probing questions. Over the course of the 90 minutes, we are brought into the world of the newly burgeoning industry of Nollywood and the effect it has on each of our characters.
The framework of Nollywood Dreams is purposefully not dissimilar to an actual Nollywood film. Bioh has written her characters to be over-the-top archetypes oscillating between overly dramatic and incredibly comedic playing key roles in how a general public audience likes and expects to be entertained in comedy. Bioh does give far more agency, intelligence, and dynamics to her female characters than the early films of Nollywood (and let’s be honest, also Hollywood). Both the descriptions and characterizations of Adenikeh and Fayola are mentioned in juxtaposition to the popular Hollywood dynamos of the 1990s and 2000s: Fayola, a once darling Nollywood actress, is described as “The Nigerian Halle Berry with Tina Turner Legs” and Adenikeh, an exuberant talk show host, is referenced as the “Nigerian Oprah Winfrey.”
Maybe it’s the simplicity of the story that left me wanting more from Bioh and the plot. The story is simple - perhaps a bit too simple at times. The script asks you to suspend your belief and lean into being prescriptive to what we are accustomed to in heavily dramaturged comedic plays. In NOLLYWOOD DREAMS, characters are in the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time, and they even do and say the right/wrong things at the right times. At one point, even Ayamma, our young yet fierce leading ingenue asks Wale, our leading man, if the flirtatious way he speaks is authentic. It’s a valid question since it feels like Wale has adopted the persona he has always been cast in. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine that he lifted lines like “[You are] Everything that men from the top to the very bottom of Nigeria are searching for” from one of his many scripts. However, he assures her that he is authentic and sincere, and we as the audience are inclined to believe him. I mean, they’re meant to get together by the end of the play...and that’s okay!
The character who doesn’t seem all too sincere, yet intrigued me the most, was Gbenga, the up and coming Nollywood producer, who *dun dun dun* happens to be the ex-boyfriend of bad red wig-wearing Fayola. We also find out that he is a Nigerian prince who needs someone to loan him money before he can access his trust fund. Actually, that last part is untrue, but it does turn out that Gbenga is one of the OGs of the wildly popular 419 scams that originated in Nigeria. Although confronted with his misdeeds surrounding the internet scam, it is barely a blip in the plot. I’m uncertain if this is intentional by Bioh, or if we are to not question if Gbenga has any self-consciousness due to the front he presents to those around him regarding his success. Out of all the characters in Nollywood Dreams, Gbenga reminds us of the struggles we all have just trying to do what we love and make it.
I am certain that the advent of Nollywood films during my formative pre-teen years is partially to blame for why I do theater as a way of living. The early eras of Nollywood were so inherently theatrical - reminiscent of indie theater - born from making stories with a limited budget, actors improvising lines and direction, and without the latest advances in technology. Nollywood took the mundanity of African life and gave it the stakes of the modern world. Bioh’s script is excellent at showing us the beginnings of an industry that seemingly started from the scraps of Hollywood yet grew into a multi-billion dollar industry that now has more creativity and output than even Hollywood. In fact, Nollywood is the second biggest entertainment in the world producing over 2,500 films a year, far more than Hollywood.
I only hope that folx who bear witness to the lighthearted brilliance of Nollywood Dreams go out and experience Nollywood cinema for themselves. The industry has come a long way from low-budget production value to carving out high-quality real estate on Netflix’s platform. However, if you’re really in the mood for the kind of movies that Nollywood Dreams pays homage to, a search on YouTube should yield some promising results like Blood Sisters, Osuofia In London, Beyonce and Rihanna: Two Beauties at War.
We all know the importance of watching foreign films and art made outside of the US. Yet, Nollywood is still as foreign an option to the most seasoned film connoisseur. It is 2021, and we must decentralize the common yet false assumption surrounding US narratives as the global export in storytelling. Foreign films have gone on to become Best Picture winners. Yet, Nollywood is rarely, if ever, given the level of consideration for the film industry’s highest honors (but that’s another conversation for another time).
Basically, if you’re listening to (or even reading) this - grab a Goya malt, order in some dodo and jollof rice (Nigerian Jollof is the best, and that’s all I’ll say about that), and watch a Nollywood movie. I guarantee you will be entertained.