In works like the Ghana-set School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, her South Harlem-influenced take on Shakespeare’s Merry Wives, and the Nigerian film industry comedy Nollywood Dreams, Jocelyn Bioh identifies a common goal: to entertain audiences while simultaneously inviting them to learn something new through the cultures of her characters. The third—currently running at Off-Broadway’s MCC Theater—has been in development for eight years, and some of its inspirations run even deeper.
“I grew up watching Nollywood movies,” Bioh says. “They were the films my cousins and I would crowd around the TV and watch on my summer trips to Ghana.” The films remain a fixture in her life, including, she notes, in any NYC hair braiding salon.
Nollywood Dreams offers a glimpse into West Africa’s own Tinseltown in the ‘90s. While audiences might catch mentions of Eddie Murphy in Coming to America or dreams of working with Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, the play follows showbiz honchos and hopefuls of another continent: star-to-be Ayamma Okafor, rising director Gbenga Ezie, heartthrob Wale Owusu, and “The Nigerian Halle Berry with Tina Turner Legs” Fayola Ogunleye.
Below, MCC Playwright-in-Residence Bioh shares some of her favorite Nollywood films that influenced these characters and the drama (on screen and off) they concoct.
The Wedding Party (2016)
Director: Kemi Adetiba
Writer: Kemi Adetiba, Tosin Otudeko
Starring: Adesua Etomi, Sola Sobowale, Banky W.
"This film is considered Nollywood's version of Titanic in that when it was released, it was the highest grossing Nollywood film in history—a record that was broken by its sequel. This film is about a couple whose wedding day becomes thwarted by fighting in-laws, exes, and tons of uninvited guests to a big Nigerian wedding. This film is really delightful and is a great example of the success that Gbenga, the writer-director character in my play, is trying to achieve with his script The Comfort Zone. Though my play takes place in the early ‘90s, Gbenga had big aspirations, and if he was a real person, I'm sure that he would have been the brains behind the first mainstream Nollywood hit."
Beyonce: The President’s Daughter (2006)
Director: Frank Rajah Arase
Writer: Abdul Salam Mumuni
Starring: Nadia Buari, Van Vicker, Jackie Appiah
"I first saw this film a few years after it came out. I was getting my hair braided at a hair braiding salon and found myself just as captivated by the movie as everyone in the salon was. My hair was done before the movie was over, so I went home and looked it up online and watched the rest. It's such a wild story of a twisted love triangle and is certainly my loose inspiration for The Comfort Zone. On the surface, it's a story of a complicated love triangle as the main character is caught between trying to choose a wealthy woman who is the daughter of the president or the struggling nightclub singer who saved his life after a near tragic robbery; but it is clear that this story is also a clear indictment on the wealthy and their unbalanced power in the world—or maybe I'm just reaching! Either way, I love it—true Nollywood classic."
Blood Sister (2003)
Director: Tchidi Chikere
Writer: John Nwatu
Starring: Genevieve Nnaji and Omotola Jalade Ekeinde
"This film is a very popular Nollywood film and stars 'The Nigerian Julia Roberts,' Genevieve Nnaji. This film about two sisters who become jealous of each other and start to do evil things in order to gain favor and attention from anyone important in their lives, namely their mother. This film is considered one of Genevieve's best and really solidified her career as a bonafide Nollywood star. There are facets of Genevieve's star power that inspired the character Fayola Ogunleye, who, in my play, was once the go-to actress in Nigeria, but after taking some time away in pursuit of a career in America, her star has faded. Though it should be noted that Genevieve's star has never faded; she is still, if not more, famous than she's ever been. Fayola (from my play) would kill to have an ounce of what Genevieve has!"
Who Killed Nancy? (1996)
Director: Ashong Katai
Writer: Kammond Mensah
Starring: Mavis Odonkor, Fred Amugi, Regina Pornortey
"This was a huge hit with my cousins and I and probably the earliest memory I have of rewatching a Nollywood film over and over again. Because the film came out on VHS (remember those?) it never found its way to becoming digitized, so I only have the memory of this film. But I recall that it was a sad story of a woman named Nancy who was dealt with all the tough blows life can throw at you: terrible marriage, loss of a job, her son ran away from home—literally everything. In the end, as the title suggests, she doesn't make it, but the mystery is, of course, 'What did Nancy in?' I recall the incredible melodramatic acting in this film that was so over the top at times, it was comical. I'll never forget the hearty laughs my cousins and I had and comedy that sprung from that melodrama is certainly baked into the audition scenes that exist in Nollywood Dreams."
Nollywood Dreams, directed by Saheem Ali, runs through November 28.