Audiences need not be steeped in knowledge of Nigerian culture to appreciate Round House Theatre’s uproariously funny regional premiere of Jocelyn Bioh’s Nollywood Dreams (★★★★☆). But it helps to know that, while Nigeria’s robust film industry, commonly referred to as Nollywood, rivals global leaders Hollywood and Bollywood in sheer volume of output and popularity, the films themselves often exude a certain low-budget cheesiness that’s ripe for parody.
The spirited company, directed by Raymond O. Caldwell, plucks an abundance of comedic fruit from those vines, spoofing the Nollywood aesthetic and weaving the sweet tale of two sisters in ’90s Lagos who dream of meeting movie stars.
Actually, Dede (Renea S. Brown) fantasizes about romancing her favorite screen hunk, Wale Owusu (Joel Ashur), while younger sister Ayamma (Ernaisja Curry) dreams of sharing the screen with him. They both toil — or, rather, hang out and watch TV — at the travel agency owned by their always-traveling parents, but Ayamma believes she’s been called to be an actress. The only problem with that, as Dede helpfully points out, is that Ayamma is a horrible actress.
To the production’s credit, and the audience’s delight, Curry is absolutely terrific at acting the part of a horrible actress. Ayamma’s extreme overacting brings to mind Carol Burnett doing Norma Desmond, but Ayamma is dead-serious about her craft — which is the joke, and a reliably funny one, at that.
Yet, her histrionic gestures and inflections might perfectly suit the style of esteemed local filmmaker Gbenga Ezie (Yao Dogbe), who’s holding open auditions for a part in his latest opus, about Comfort, a woman scorned. Titled, naturally, The Comfort Zone, the film is set to star none other than Wale Owusu, so, of course, Ayamma sets her sights on the role.
It’s an easy, breezy setup by Ghanaian writer Bioh, whose debut work School Girls: Or, the African Mean Girls Play was a hit for Round House last season. Here, she elevates a simple breaking-into-showbiz story with her winning comic voice, astute cultural specificity, and an alluring whiff of romance. When Ayamma finally meets Wale Owusu — not remotely in the way she thought she might — sparks fly instantly between the two. The romantic chemistry between Curry and Ashur, playing an impossibly smooth but sincere celebrity, is off the charts.
In a similar but markedly different fashion, the sibling chemistry between Curry’s starry-eyed Ayammma and Brown’s more grounded sister Dede anchors the show. Every cast member grabs the spotlight for at least a moment or two, and none more wholeheartedly and amusingly than Jacqueline Youm, playing talk show host Adenikeh, the Oprah of Nigerian TV.
Frequently, scenic designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s travel agency set spins around on the stage turntable to reveal the set of The Adenikeh Show, where the effusive host grills guests like Wale, Gbenga, and Fayola Ogunleye (Yetunde Felix-Ukwu), Ayamma’s movie star rival for the role of Comfort.
Competition over the role of Comfort drives the play forward — although Caldwell’s pacing, like that turntable on opening night, stalls at times. And, despite developing a measure of suspense around the final outcome, the production doesn’t gracefully reach a climax, but rather just slams into an ending. Following a final scene that doesn’t play or feel like a final scene, the turntable suddenly spins right into the cast dancing their curtain calls.
The lighthearted trip to Lagos might end unexpectedly, but it still delivers uplift and inspiration in the form of a rags-to-riches rise filtered through the vibrant humanity of these Nollywood dreamers.
Nollywood Dreams runs through July 3 at the Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, in Bethesda, Md. Tickets are $41 to $56. Call 240-644-1100, or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.
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