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Director Erica Sutherlin made freeFall’s ‘Dreams’ come true

Bill DeYoung

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In "Nollywood Dreams": Shelby Ronea, left, Clinton C.H. Harris, Andresia Moseley and Milton Lyles. Images: Thee Photo Ninja.

Jocelyn Bioh’s Nollywood Dreams, the new production from freeFall Theatre, has lots of things going for it. It’s hilariously funny, it moves in unexpected directions, and – perhaps most important of all – the six members of the cast clearly enjoy one another’s company onstage. Their camaraderie and sense of joy is palpable.

Set in Lagos, Nigeria in the 1990s, the play follows Ayamma Okafor, an aspiring actress determined to audition for – and get cast in – the latest film from the country’s hot young director, Gbenga Ezie.

(Just as the Indian film industry refers to itself as Bollywood, Nigerian-made movies come from Nollywood.)

Fahniohnee Reeves, who plays Ayamma, is from Liberia – also on Africa’s western coast – and speaks in a dialect not dissimilar from that spoken in Nigeria. The other actors, however, had to disguise their American accents and make themselves sound believably Nigerian.

“One of the things I think you have to do, as a director and a coach, is remind everybody that this is a gentle process,” laughs Erica Sutherlin, director of Nollywood Dreams. “We’re going to trip over things, and then it’s going to become second nature. I said we’re just playing, so let’s bring it in. And they took right to it.”

Accents mastered, they went to work on the characters and their relationships to one another.

And they had exactly two weeks to do it all. “It’s a lot of work, I’m not gonna lie about that,” Sutherlin offers. “I blocked 104 pages in three days.”

In mid-March, she recalls, “I got an email saying ‘Hey, our director had to step down. Would you be willing to step in and fill this role? It’s a two-week rehearsal process.’”

The email came from Eric Davis, freeFall’s producing artistic director. Sutherlin, who’d never previously directed at freeFall, was a longtime fan of Davis and his fertile, ever-creative mind.

“I was like ooh, two weeks! Yummy! I can do this in two weeks. As a director, the challenge of putting it on its feet, to get it shaped up and before an audience, was super exciting.”

The first order of business was casting. “This is what I think was so cool about this experience, and what I love about art,” Sutherlin says. “And teamwork. A beautiful challenge arose and we all met it.

Fahniohnee Reeves, left, and Hillary Lewis play sisters with big ambitions in “Nollywood Dreams.”

“I think Fahniohnee was already attached to the project, but not knowing which role she was going to play. People said ‘yes’ two, three, maybe four days before we started rehearsal.”

Clinton C.H. Harris, who’d appeared in the Sutherlin-directed productions of The Color Purple (at Stageworks) and Ragtime (at American Stage), plays Ezie. Hillary Scales (freeFall’s The Night Before and Marie & Rosetta) has the role of Dede, Ayamma’s sister. Shelby Ronea (American Stage’s Crimes of the Heart) portrays Fayola Ogunleye, the prima donna Nollywood starlet. Area newcomer Milton Lyles plays handsome-but-humble film star Wale Owusu, on whom giddy Dede has a massive crush.

Rounding out the cast as Lagos’ resident talk-show host, Adenikeh, is Tampa actress Andresia Moseley, one of the most in-demand bay area thespians. Moseley and Sutherlin are longtime friends.

In no time, everyone became fast friends. “They really do like each other,” affirms Sutherlin. “They showed up as an ensemble; they like playing off of each other. And it wasn’t just the cast – we all liked each other, the creative team, the cast, my stage manager. It was just beautiful.”

In the program, Davis is credited for set design, sound design, props design and video design. Early in the process, he hired professional voice actors to record sections of the script, in the proper dialect, to help the actors with their inflections.

For Sutherlin, who’ll succeed Bob Devin Jones as The Studio@620’s artistic director in June, there was another reason to take on helming Nollywood Dreams: “Because we’re going to bring theater back into 620, I wanted to see what that two-week process felt like. Like is it something we could handle? Because financially, it’s a good model.”

Until then, “This is probably one of my best experiences as a director, through the process,” Sutherlin says. “I would work with freeFall again in a heartbeat. It was just such a delightful experience.”

Find showtimes and tickets here.

Director Erica Sutherlin. Photo provided.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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