Encore Michigan

Review: Hooray For ‘Nollywood’ at Open Book

Preview January 23, 2023 David Kiley

TRENTON, MI–Here’s what is great about “Nollywood Dreams,” now being presented at The Open Book Theatre here. Like me, I bet there are many who were not even aware of the Nigerian film industry, a prolifici industry of entertainment in Africa. The play, written by Ghanian-American playwright Joselyn Bioh, succeeds in opening a door unknown to a lot of us in Michigan into a world of characters and culture that doesn’t get a lot  of recognition in the U.S.

Bioh’s characterizations are somewhat broad, but no broader than Hollywood’s traditions of milking formula stories. There is the unknown young woman dreams of a career in film. There is the Snarky sister who tries to squash her dreams. The movie director isn’t all he says he is. The diva actress who tries to keep the unknown, who is better than she is, in the wings. The leading film actor who has a jones for the unknown actress instead of the diva. It’s like All About Eve meets the A Star is Born, only in Nigeria.

Ashley M. Lyle plays aspiring actress Ayamma wonderfully, with a great sense of comic timing and facial acting. She and her sister, Dede (Krystle Dellihue)), work by day their father’s travel agency. Ayamma knows the film director, Gbenga Ezie (Sealoyd Jones III) about to produce a film, and she has been learning lines and working up to what she hopes is her big break.  Ms. Dellihue plays her role extremely well–snarky, sarcastic, bored with the travel agency, fixated on a soap opera and tongue-tied when she meets Wale Owusu (Nate John Mark) the Sidney Portier of Nollywood.

The rest of the cast–Bre Jackson as diva actress Fayola Ogunleye and LaShanette ‘La La’ Harrison as talk-show host Adenikah. Directed by K Edmonds, the work of some cast members is difficult to parse, because a big part of the characters, as written by Bioh, depicts them as hammy, over-the-top, almost cartoonishly bad actors. The story takes place in the 1990s when I gather the Nigerian film industry was rife with terrible acting and cheesy story lines and show hosts. Ashley Lyle’s Ayamma character also makes “questionable” choices when auditioning in the story, though she handles the self-inflicted bad acting extremely well. It may sound odd to assert that acting badly on purpose is difficult to pull off well, but it is, yet Lyle keeps it under control in her audition scene to keep the comedy in tact.

Adenikah is a low-rent basement version of Oprah, but a bit smarmy and unctuous while also trying comedically to project as an earnest Earth Mother type. She pops in and out for comic relief, and the play calls for the theatre audience to be the studio audience for the show, complete with prompts to applaud, say “Awwwwww” or “Oooooooh.”

There is an arc to the play, but “Nollywood Dreams” mostly works to take us to a place we have never been, and shows us that ambition, skullduggery, lying, BS, looksism over competence, and dreams are pretty much the same culture to culture, continent to continent. And Bioh makes Nollywood Dreams a funny, charming celebration of what we have in common while illuminating our cultural differences for a better understanding of one another across the waters.

Gordon Mosely built a set designed by Drew Hall to encompass the travel agency, and a downstage set for the talk show. Harley Miah designed lighting, while Cheryl Zemke designed costumes and Ms. Edmonds handles sound design.

Definitely check it out for laughs and a window into another culture to see how similar we really are.

Week of 2/6/2023

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