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The overturning of Roe v. Wade has left many of us seeing red, but it’s an act of personal resistance and self-care to watch a performance that sweeps you into a bygone era with a story that embraces the silly. What makes it an even greater act of resistance is when that story spotlights Nigerian women in big, bold colors using big, bold voices, which inevitably bring light back into your world.
Nollywood Dreams, playing at Round House Theatre, is that women-centered escapist story. The set is a kaleidoscope turntable of three sets: an old-school talk show set for larger-than-life host Adenikeh (Jacqueline Youm), a travel agency decorated with destination posters, and the production office of an underhanded Gbenga Ezie (Yao Dogbe). The ’90s bathroom signs and outdated TV set vividly capture the decade, as do the Afrobeat and R&B songs (”Don’t Wanna Be a Player,” anyone?) that greet audiences before and during the show’s opening.
From the first scene, we glimpse the sisterly banter, their ironic portrayal of Nigerian culture and parody of U.S. culture (“These White people!” is an endearing refrain during bouts of confusion over American customs), and physical comedy that dominates the play. Dede Okafor (Renea Brown) and Ayamma Okafor (Ernaisja Curry) are a beyond-dynamic duo who live to tease and support one another. The daughters of travel agency owners, they spend their days in Lagos dragging their feet at the family business—Dede especially, with her penchant for gossip and taking it easy. The sisters bond over celebrity crushes and watching their favorite talk show, Adenikeh, over tea and honey.
Ayamma’s big dreams of breaking into the Nigerian film industry do not outsize her boisterous body language. Corporal interpretations of the script she reads with Dede—rehearsals for the audition Ayamma knows will change everything—elicit guffaws from the audience. No matter how many times, or how many scenes, Ayamma graces us with overacting (and as well as her cartwheels, full-body expressions, and hand-clapping against the wall or floor), it’s a crowd pleaser. So is the giddiness of Dede upon meeting the actor whose likeness she has posted onto the back door of the agency, super-smooth Wale Owusu (Joel Ashur). Dede, who always has a smart remark at the ready, is reduced to a series of squeaks when he gets near.
Ayamma makes it her mission to snag the lead role as the wife of a duplicitous man in the melodrama The Comfort Zone against all odds: She’s a nobody and she’s going head-to-head with Nollywood’s former darling, Fayola Ogunleye (Yetunde Felix-Ukwu). Her enthusiasm wins over both Gbenga, the director and producer, and Wale, the show’s co-star. In doing so, she makes an instant enemy of Fayola. But playwright Jocelyn Bioh of The African Mean Girls Play doesn’t play; her protagonist is more than an ingenue. When a threatened Fayola tries to put her rival in her place, Ayamma claps back harder.
Bioh also doesn’t leave catfight tropes undisturbed. It’s hard not to enjoy Fayola and Ayamma’s audition knockout rounds at Gbenga’s studio, or the awkward sidesteps of Wale and Gbenga when they find themselves caught in unfriendly fire. But the Ghanian American playwright also delves deeper into Fayola’s psyche, ensuring there’s no clear winner for audience empathy. Behind the shades and kayfabe of cold glamour—a “Halle Berry” face and “Tina Turner legs”—in private scenes with Gbenga, Fayola transmits vulnerability. Their backstory unfolds and unveils the longtime wound beneath Fayola’s hardness.
And Bioh knows how to do satire: Adenikeh, with her bottomless closet of extravagant clothes and proclivity toward scandal (not to mention the inappropriate touching of male co-stars) has Oprah-like ambitions and is the perfect parody of a talk show host. Prodded by signs to cheer, applaud, or jeer, the audience is in on Youm’s jabs at the fakeness, winks, and too-wide grins of performative TV personalities. When cameras aren’t rolling, her true character proves lackluster.
The Comfort Zone story within the story makes Nollywood Dreams a dual win when the characters and their film characters triumph. The rom-com within the play of the same genre likewise doubles the laughter. Bioh, for her part, leaves us with that most radical of resistances: She portrays West African people in their home country as complex, flawed, and endearing at once—not all hero or villain, suffering or overcoming. And she dares to give them a happy ending.
Nollywood Dreams, written by Jocelyn Bioh and directed by Raymond O. Caldwell, plays at Round House Theatre through July 3. roundhousetheatre.org. $55–$68.