It takes a small village to reimagine Nollywood for an American audience.
In Nollywood Dreams, which kicks off the 2021-2022 season at New York City’s MCC theater, this creative reinvention starts with the comforting set design, transporting audiences to a middle-class home in nineties Lagos. It continues through the mix of Afrobeats music blasting from the speakers just before the show kicks off. It ends with a hilariously terrible montage that spoofs the notorious hectic energy of the average Nollywood film.
Written by the culturally ascendant Jocelyn Bioh (School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play), this production of Nollywood Dreams (opening on November 11 and running through the 28th) picks up from the interruption of the previous season brought on by Covid-induced shutdowns. Nollywood Dreams is directed with vim by Kenyan Saheem Ali and stars actors who claim heritage from Ghana, Nigeria, and the United States.
This is an interesting development considering that Nollywood, the not-particularly-creative moniker of Nigeria’s busy film industry, is considered in global mainstream spaces to be a niche fascination. An acquired taste, which although beloved by millions from the global African diaspora, does not particularly travel well.
In my near decade career of covering Nollywood as a film critic and reporter, a recurrent conversation I have had with programmers at international film festivals and television networks is their unending difficulty to relate with the lowbrow sensibilities of Nollywood. And who can blame them? They certainly have a point. Nigeria’s bustling film industry, one of the largest in the world at least in terms of volume of output, started out in the nineties as an outcome of necessity, mixing the aching need for representation with VHS, the technology of the time.
Inspired by the language of the stage and the small screen — cinema screens were not available in Nigeria at the time — the films were simplistic moralistic tales with choppy production values. What they lacked in technical capacities, they made up for with storytelling gusto, spinning relatable yarns of love and loss and dreams and disappointments.
These films were welcomed by an audience hungry for the representation that Hollywood films — no matter how neatly packaged — were simply unable to provide. Fast forward some thirty years later and Nollywood has taken up an unmistakable outsize presence in the culture. The films regularly play well on the big screens. The internet is littered with memes paying homage to Nollywood’s most popular moments and players. Netflix is now domiciled in Lagos, licensing and creating original content. Amazon Prime has followed at a distance. It has never been easier to access Nollywood content.
Nollywood wasn’t just a local phenomenon though. The films were also incredibly popular across the continent, inspiring copycat local DIY film hubs. The global Black diaspora assumed a pivotal role, helping disseminate the films to far flung regions. Watching Nollywood Dreams, it is quite obvious that while the Nollywood model has provided results so far, the kind of game changing mainstream attention that could lead to bigger business and improved structures cannot be achieved without Africa’s diaspora.
Bioh for instance, is a first generation American whose parents migrated from Ghana in the sixties. Clearly, they retained some connection to home as Nollywood Dreams plays as a love letter to a sub-culture from someone who has put plenty of effort into studying and internalizing it. In her introductory note, Bioh describes Nollywood movies as “the films of my youth.” She writes about bingeing on Nollywood films at hair salons in the States and during summer holidays spent with her grandparents in Ghana.
Nollywood Dreams is a winsome romantic comedy about doe-eyed ambition, dreams coming true, and in pure Nigerian fashion, the triumph of the underdog. The play’s plucky heroine is Ayamma Okafor (a winning Sandra Okuboyejo) who spends her days working at the travel agency small business owned by her parents. When she isn’t trading barbs with her celebrity-obsessed elder sister, Dede (Nana Mensah) she is dreaming of making it big in Nollywood. Ayamma scores an opportunity to audition for a tightly contested leading role in a new film, The Comfort Zone helmed by hot shot director Gbenga Ezie (Charlie Hudson III) placing herself firmly on the path to celebrity.
The production traces some of the cultural specificities beyond the mise-en-scène. A hilarious audition scene that explains how the film’s title, The Comfort Zone, came to be- — literally and with a desperate lack of irony — is typical Nollywood hubris. Scene stealer Abena, who plays the gregarious talk show host, nails the varying shades of the local celebrity culture.
Nigerian accents are notoriously difficult and have long defeated everyone from Will Smith in the sports drama Concussion to Colman Domingo in this year’s Twitter thread adventure, Zola. While there is some effort to capture the Nigerian lingo, it isn’t very successful as the actors are all working within their individual abilities.
Even with its Nigerian bonafides intact, Nollywood Dreams is ultimately an American interpretation of a Nigerian cultural export. Bioh is an outsider looking in and structures the play within the familiar beats of American entertainment, blunting out some of the sharpest edges for ease of translation.
Within its 90-minutes runtime, Nollywood Dreams accommodates tropes such as the naïve heroine, the worldly leading man whom she falls for, the wise-cracking side kick, the manufactured plot complication, and the obvious ending. There are the contextual cultural comparisons. Abena’s character Adenike is the “Nigerian Oprah Winfrey.” The superstar actress Fayola (Emana Rachelle) whom Ayamma has to contend with is the “Nigerian Halle Berry with Tina Turner legs.” And then there are the now tired jokes about Nigerians engaging in internet fraudulent scams littered within.
The melding of these two film cultures on the stage is not as unlikely as one would expect and points to cultural exchanges already ongoing as a viable path for representation with the tensions embedded.
From music to movies, fashion to sports, it would seem that something of a Nigerian renaissance is upon us. Not everyone would agree but whether it is Giannis Antetokounmpo arriving in Milwaukee by way of Greece to light up the NBA, or Justin Bieber juicing up the remix of Wizkid and Tems’ crossover hit single Essence, cross cultural infusions are thriving and providing workable templates for success.
For this writer who has for years been told that Nollywood is an acquired taste while pitching coverage relating to the industry to international media, it is indeed gratifying to see a production with the heft of Nollywood Dreams make a splash off Broadway. There is something oddly thrilling about watching a diverse audience of Americans laugh at the specific foibles of an industry that was birthed kilometers away, under less than conducive conditions. No one involved in the industry’s hard scrabble early days could have predicted this outcome.
It’s the kind of stuff that Nollywood dreams are made of.