Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Also see Patrick's recent review of POTUS
It's especially hard to blame Ayamma (Angel Adedokun), the young woman at the heart of Jocelyn Bioh's Nollywood Dreams, now on stage at San Francisco Playhouse. As the play opens, Ayamma and her sister Dede (Brittany Nicole Sims) are in the family travel agency in Lagos, Nigeria. ("Nollywood" being a sobriquet for the Nigerian film industry.) While Dede idles away her time looking at celebrity gossip magazines, younger sister Ayamma has learned that young filmmaker Gbenga Ezie (Tre'Vonne Bell), recently returned from the United States, is having an open casting call for the lead in his new movie, The Comfort Zone, and Ayamma has gotten her hands on a copy of the script in order to rehearse for the audition. Dede scoffs at this, wondering what experience Ayamma has in acting. When Ayamma reminds her how good she was in a church play many years prior, Dede responds with a brusque, "I remember. You are not good." But when Dede learns that her idol, Nigerian film star Wale Owusu (Jordan Covington), has been cast as the male lead, Dede goes full fangirl and decides to accompany Ayamma to the audition in the hope of getting to see the man she imagines becoming her husband. Monitoring the action is TV host Adenikeh (Tanika Baptiste), who, through her titular talk show on Nigerian television, interviews the stars, almost like an African Oprah. (Her costumes–by Jasmine Milan Williams–are marvelously colorful, with bold patterns and flowing silhouettes in the West African tradition.)
This lighthearted comedy is a little too light for my taste. Although there are many funny moments, there's no real wit on display here, no lines that feel especially memorable or that one might repeat when chatting about the play. The lightness extends to the stakes, which are minimal, other than a minor reference to Ezie's background (think internet scams and resume padding) that never gets paid off.
But, thanks to a skilled cast, Nollywood Dreams manages to engage as we root for Ayamma to overcome all the obstacles in her way. We even root for the less-than-sincere characters who are, after all, only trying to achieve their dreams. Anna Marie Sharpe sparkles as Fayola Ogunleye, an established film actress who is also gunning for the lead role in Ezie's movie. As film star Wale, Jordan Covington displays an easy physicality and a charm that is thinner than a single page of Ezie's script, but because his character has mastered the art of faking sincerity, that charm is all his audience ever sees.
The ensemble also benefits from precise direction by Margo Hall. Her characters always move with intention, and she's created some wonderfully funny moments, like the sequence where Fayola is auditioning and Ayamma mouths every word along with her.
Artistic Director Bill English has done a wonderful job as the scenic designer, with a turntable stage that facilitates easy scene changes between the travel agency, the offices of Ezie's Nollywood Dreams studio, and the set of Adenikeh's talk show. Stretched across the proscenium is an immense, colorfully lit "Nollywood" sign that seems to mirror the big dreams shared by every member of the cast.
Nollywood Dreams runs through November 4, 2023, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $15-$100. For tickets and information, please visit www.sfplayhouse.org or call the box office at 415-677-9596.