“Nollywood Dreams”, a new play written by Jocelyn Bioh and directed by Raymond O. Caldwell, is all about experiencing joy. The play will debut at the Round House Theater June 8 and Caldwell hopes it gives D.C. residents the chance to experience more of what Nollywood has to offer. Bigger than Hollywood and second to Bollywood (Dollywood doesn’t count), the Nigerian film industry is its own style, uplifting and focusing on Nigerian voices.
Caldwell focuses so much on joy because all too often, stories and plays and movies root the Black experience in trauma — working to bring injustice to light and start conversations of racial tension in the United States. While that work is important, it can overshadow Black and brown people simply living joyfully.
“When I think about rom coms, I think about the fact that they often center around a white woman going through a journey,” Caldwell says. “We all go through that journey with her. And by the end, we’re like, ‘Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts — oh, my God, I’m you.’ And I think that part of our core problem in America is that we haven’t taken enough time to see ourselves in Black and brown people in their most joyful.”
Written by Bioh, the author of “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls”, “Nollywood Dreams” follows Ayamma, a woman working at her parents’ travel agency in Lagos, Nigeria. But she’s not really there when she’s at work. Instead, she’s dreaming of her big break in Nollywood, and when she finally lands an audition, things start taking off.
“What I love about this romantic comedy is that we literally watch this young girl, and we start seeing ourselves, and our younger selves, when we hadn’t become so jaded,” Caldwell says. “I was talking with the actress who plays Ayamma, and I was trying to encourage her to think about the moment before we all became jaded — the moment before someone told us our dreams weren’t possible. And I think that’s really important to hold on to, particularly through the lens of Africa.”
Caldwell says the show is not an African American story. It’s a Nigerian story. An important distinction for American patrons, especially due to recent callouts of white Americans not understanding that Africa is a continent, not a country — of which, Caldwell says, there are many jokes in the play.
“Nollywood is really, really overdramatic,” Caldwell says. “It’s a fascinating style, and I think when we look at it, we think, ‘Oh, wow, a soap opera, right?’ The stakes are at their most extreme. And that’s what people love about it.”
The cast thrives within this style. A subset of people who want to celebrate and uplift Black and Nigerian culture, they’ve come together and embodied the play’s core: they just have fun together.
“We spent a lot of time talking about the fact that even though three of them are West African and three of them are African American, none of them had ever had the opportunity to experience African characters,” Caldwell says. “To actually see their culture represented on stage through music and fashion and story and plot and location, that really does something. When I think about the magic that is happening in the room right now, why we’ve all become so close, it’s because I think we’re all getting to celebrate and uplift something we’ve all felt very connected to.”
Caldwell infuses some of his own style into the play as well. “Nollywood Dreams” takes place in the ’90s and Caldwell says he’s a ’90s kid.
“I am really attempting to celebrate Nigerian architecture and clothing and fashion in many different ways throughout this production,” he says. “There are lots of ’90s references sprinkled throughout.”
The context around the play is quite meta: All the people who came together to make this play happen to experience the same joy in production that the characters experience on stage. And in a way, Caldwell’s personal experience is a foil to main character, Ayamma’s.
“I got to D.C. 13 years ago, and I went to see a play at Round House,” he says. “And I said one day, ‘I want to direct on that stage.’ And so now, 13 years later to be doing that, with this play about a young Nigerian girl whose dreams come true, there’s something very full circle about that for me.”
“Nollywood Dreams” runs June 8 through July 3. You can purchase tickets here.