Onwueme, Osonye Tess 1955–

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Onwueme, Osonye Tess 1955–

(Tess Akaeke Onwueme, Tess Osonye Onwueme)


Born September 8, 1955, in Ogwashi-Uku, Nigeria; daughter of Juluga (a lawyer) and Maria (a homemaker) Akaeke; married Inno C. Onwueme (a professor; divorced October 3, 1997); married Obika Gray (a professor), May 8, 1998; children: (first marriage) Kenolisa, Ebele, Kunume, Bundo and Malije (twins). Education: University of Ife, B.A. (with honors), 1979, M.A., 1982; University of Benin, Ph.D., 1987. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Christian.


Home—Eau Claire, WI. Office—Department of English, University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire, Eau Claire, WI 54701; fax: 715-836-5996. Agent—Lordly & Dame, Inc., 51 Church St., Boston, MA 02116. E-mail—[email protected].


University of Ife, Ife, Nigeria, assistant lecturer in English, 198-81; Federal University of Technology, Owerri, Nigeria, assistant professor of English and head of performing arts program, 1982-87; Imo State University (now Abia State University), Okigwe, Nigeria, associate professor of English, 1986-89, head of performing arts unit, 1988-89; Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, associate professor of Africana studies and Martin Luther King, Jr. Caesar Chavez, Rosa Parks Distinguished Writer, 1989-90; Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ, associate professor of English and multicultural literary studies, 1990-93; University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire, Eau Claire, Distinguished Professor of Cultural Diversity and professor of English, 1994—. Vassar College, associate professor, 1992-93; U.S. State Department, public diplomacy specialist in speaker program for North, West, and East India, 2007; speaker, lecturer, and performer in a variety of national and international contexts, including Pace University; York University, Toronto, Canada; University of Toronto, Canada; New York University; King Alfred's College, England; San Diego University; National Black Arts Festival; the Kennedy Center; Legion University; ITI Athens; UNESCO sponsored Ubuntu; Dartmouth College, Santa Clara University; Miami International Book Fair; Houston University; Hamline University; Swedish Dag Harmarsjkold Foundation Seminar on African Writers; Pace University; Hamilton College; Utkal University, Orissa, India; University of Mumbai, Maharashtra, India; and Khartoum University, Sudan, Africa. United Black Artists, member of national advisory board, 1988-91; Organization of Women Writers of African Descent, member of international advisory board; ETA Theater, member of Playwrights/Directors Initiative. Member of editorial board, Literati Internationale, 1990—.


PEN International Writers Association, International Women Playwrights Association, African Studies Association, African Literature Association, Black Theater Network, Pan African Writers Association, Association of Nigerian Authors (acting president, 1988-89), Society of Nigerian Theatre Artists, Literary Society of Nigeria, Writers Guild of Great Britain.


Literary Prizes for drama, Association of Nigerian Authors 1985, for The Desert Encroaches, 1995, for Tell it to Women: An Epic Drama for Women, 2001, for Shakara: Dance-Hall Queen, and 2003, for Then She Said It; award of excellence for academic contributions to the University of Wisconsin System, 1995; distinguished authors award, Ife Interna- tional Book Fair, 1988; grants from Ford Foundation, 2000, and Institute of International Education, 2001.



A Hen Too Soon, Heins Publishers (Owerri, Nigeria), 1983.

The Broken Calabash (produced in Lagos, Nigeria, at National Theatre, 1984; produced in Detroit, MI, at Bonstelle Theater, 1988), Totan Publishers (Owerri, Nigeria), 1984.

(Under name Tess Akaeke Onwueme) The Desert Encroaches (produced in Owerri, Nigeria, at Theater of the Federal University of Technology, 1986; produced in Buffalo, NY, at Pfeifer Theater, 1988), Heins Publishers (Owerri, Nigeria), 1985.

A Scent of Onions (produced in Owerri, Nigeria, at Futo Theater, 1988), Totan Publishers (Owerri, Nigeria), 1986.

(Under name Tess Akaeke Onwueme) Ban Empty Barn and Other Plays, Heinemann Educational Books (Ibadan, Nigeria), 1986.

The Artist's Homecoming (performed in Montclair, NJ, at School of Performance, 1991), 1986.

Cattle Egret versus Nama, 1986.

(Under name Tess Akaeke Onwueme) Mirror for Campus (produced in Owerri, Nigeria, at Theater of the Federal University of Technology, 1987), Leadway Books (Owerri, Nigeria), 1987.

In Search of a Theme, produced in Ife, Nigeria, at Theater of the University of Ife, 1987.

(Under name Tess Akaeke Onwueme) The Reign of Wazobia: A Play (produced in Poughkeepsie, NY, at Theater of Vassar College, 1993; produced in New York, NY, by Ensemble Theater Company, 1996), Heinemann Educational Books (Ibadan, Nigeria), 1988.

(Under name Tess Akaeke Onwueme) Legacies: A Play (produced in Imo, Nigeria, at Theater of Imo State University, 1989; produced in Chicago, IL, at ETA Professional Theater, 1992), Heinemann Educational Books (Ibadan, Nigeria), 1989.

Parables for a Season, Heinemann Educational Books (Ibadan, Nigeria), 1991.

Someday Soon, produced in New York, NY, at New Federal Theater, 1991.

(Under name Tess Akaeke Onwueme) Go Tell It to the Women: An Epic Drama for Women (produced in Newark, NJ, at Nommo African American Play Festival, 1992), African Heritage Press (Newark, NJ), 1992, published as Tell It to Women: An Epic Drama, foreword by Ngugi Wa Thion'o, Wayne State University Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.

(Under name Tess Akaeke Onwueme) Three Plays: An Anthology of Three Plays, (includes The Broken Calabash,), Wayne State University Press (Detroit, MI), 1993

Riot in Heaven: Musical Drama for the Voices of Color, Africana Legacy Press (New York, NY), 1996, 2nd edition, African Heritage Press (New York, NY), 2006.

The Missing Face: Musical Drama for the Voices of Color (produced in New York, NY, at New Federal Theater, 2001), Africana Legacy Press (New York, NY), 1997, revised edition, African Heritage Press (San Francisco, CA), 2002.

Shakara: Dance Hall Queen (adapted for the media and broadcast on Play of the Week, British Broadcasting Corp., 2004), African Heritage Press (San Francisco, CA), 2000, 2nd edition, 2006.

Then She Said It! (produced on tour of Nigerian communities, 2001), African Heritage Press (San Francisco, CA), 2002.

Acada Boys and Riot in Heaven, African Heritage Press (San Francisco, CA), 2003.

What Mama Said: An Epic Drama, introduction by Maureen N. Eke, Wayne State University Press (Detroit, MI), 2003.

NO Vacancy!, Africa World Press (Trenton, NJ), 2004.

Also author of Our Son, Tom and de Governor.


Why the Elephant Has No Butt: Stories Mother Turkey Told Her Children (novel), African Heritage Press (New York, NY), 2000.

Work represented in anthologies, including Literacy and Reading in Nigeria, edited by Ben Oluikpe, Fourth Dimension Publishers (Enugu, Nigeria), 1985; The Study of Literature: An Introductory Text, edited by Charles Nnolim, Leadway Books (Owerri, Nigeria), 1987; Surprise Party: An Anthology of Short Stories, edited by Osita Ike, Oyster St. Iyke (Yaba, Lagos State, Nigeria), c. 1991; Feminism in African Literature: Essays on Criticism, edited by Helen Chukwuma, New Generation Books (Enugu, Nigeria), 1994; and Emerging Perspectives on Flora Nwapa, edited by Marie Umeh, Africa World Press (Trenton, NJ), 1997. Contributor of scholarly articles and reviews to periodicals, including SAGE: Scholarly Journal on Black Women, Cajolis, Ufahamu, Canadian Journal of African Studies, Literary Griot, Drum Voices Revue, Obsidian, and ANA Review.


Osonye Tess Onwueme is a prolific, internationally acclaimed playwright and university professor from Nigeria who writes mostly politically oriented plays. She won the Nigerian Authors Award for Drama in 1985 for The Desert Encroaches, an allegory and political satire fable in which most of the characters are animals representing various countries or regions of the world—a lion for the United States and a bear for the Soviet Union, for instance. In The Desert Encroaches, the animals of the South, representing Africa, rage against the animals from the North and West that are threatening the world with nuclear destruction. Ban Empty Barn and Other Plays also uses animals as characters, but the scope is national rather than international in focus. Bene and Bede, the central characters, are two hungry chicks who wonder why they and their human "master" suffer from privations while the animals next door, wards of a "man of God," live in opulence.

Nigerian critics dubbed The Reign of Wazobia: A Play Onwueme's first "feminist" play. ("Wazobia" is a word conflated from Nigeria's three major ethnic languages-wa for Yoruba, zo for Hausa, and bia for Igbo.) The play is about a tribe that names a woman as temporary "king" for three seasons any time a traditional male king dies. At the end of the appointed time a new permanent king is chosen. Wazobia is the woman acting as temporary king. She refuses to abdicate when her "reign" comes to an end, urging the women of the tribe not be subjugated again by the men of the tribe. In a symbolic scene the women, naked, build a human fence around Wazobia when the men, led by the priest of the tribe, come to seize her. The men are shocked into retreat by the sight. J.O.J. Nwachukwu-Agbada of Imo State University in Okigwe, Nigeria, wrote in World Literature Today that "stylistically, Wazobia is one of Onwueme's most satisfying plays. The language has heave, full of the cadence of typical Nigerian speech idiosyncrasies."

Onwueme's ambitious work (at least in length), the play Go Tell It to the Women: An Epic Drama for Women, is more than 400 pages in print. It follows the adventures of Yemoja, a woman from a simple village, who pursues the academic life in the capital only to realize ultimately that she has left her roots and powerful value system behind. Critics have interpreted this drama as Onwueme's statement against Western-style "white-faced" feminism. Harold A. Walters, writing in World Literature Today, dismissed the play as "frequently constipated not by poetry but by natter." However, Patrick E. Idoye, writing for the Black Scholar, found much to praise in the play: "In its critique of modern Western feminism, Go Tell It to the Women enables us to understand the dynamics of traditional African society, especially the strength which it provides the rural people." Idoye further stated that the play is "well structured. Its style, content and form show that the playwright has matured immensely since her first play in 1984."

Many of Onwueme's other works are more traditional in theme and structure. A Hen Too Soon concerns the conflicts that ensue when an educated daughter is promised in marriage to a man as old as her father. The Broken Calabash is also about the same type of arranged marriage, but this play has a violent denouement after the daughter falsely accuses her own father of having impregnated her. Another play, The Artist's Homecoming, tells the story of the daughter who wants to pursue an artistic career against the wishes of her father, a traditional chief. Cattle Egret versus Nama examines the corruption of law enforcers who try to meet arrest quotas in order to enrich the coffers of the local government. Onwueme also produced Mirror for Campus, which examines how tribal politics—endemic across Nigeria—even affects the lives of scholars on college campuses.

Onwueme told CA: "Over the years, I have come to appreciate the fact that no creative work is ever finished. I'm acutely aware that we all—including the characters we create and give birth to—do grow and tend to exist in relative states of unstable equilibrium as ‘ongoing projects’, ‘unfinished products’ or ‘products in the making.’ In my creative process and experience, therefore, I often find myself writing and re-writing myself! For in my work I remain engaged in both inter-textual and inter-cultural dialogue(s) with my fellow writers on the nagging issues and politics (or ‘poly-tricks’!) of race, class, gender, and poverty with the reality of socioeconomic inequities and injustices (de)forming people and identities in the emerging ‘market culture’ of today's global society.

"I lay claim to the fact that I am a global citizen as my evolving experience of the global community continues to color, shape, influence, and (trans)form the landscapes of my creative vision(s), ideologies, and sensibilities. Time was in the early stages of my career when I could easily lay my finger on particularized influences on my work—e.g. the social and aesthetic ideologies of writers like Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Sembane Ousmane, Bertolt Brecht, along with my childhood experiences of story telling/folktale and folk drama/ritual. But that era is increasing becoming blurred by the panoramic view of my own personal and professional journeys, through Nigeria/Africa, to living and inhabiting the North American spaces in the last two decades, with the attendant opportunities to participate, experience, teach, learn, and gain deeper insights not only on the African Diaspora, but also from the many (diverse) cultures within and beyond that world facilitated through numerous lecture/speaking engagements and stage production of my plays beyond international borders.

"I believe that the main purpose for which I engage that world in my writing is to raise consciousness, to use my work to provoke critical dialogue on issues that are important to the world I live in. So, for me, the creative work becomes an extension of my social dialogue with the world community: local and global. I strive to provoke heightened awareness and critical insight about the issues that were not clear or that were silenced. Take for example Then She Said It! How many people are really aware of what the rural women in those oil-producing areas of the Niger Delta are experiencing? Do they know their stories? What is covered in the media, the history, is usually the account of those who have controlling power, the rulers who also manipulate individual and national histories. But the voices of those who have been impacted by the actions of the rulers, and especially the voices of the distressed, marginalized rural women, who do not have the privilege and technological power of the media to propagate their own ideology, get drowned. I believe that I can use my critical engagement and projection of their images and voices to ‘stage a hearing’ for them, to bring their stories to African and world attention, and to persuade people to think critically about these issues that continue to I transform the world of many. So through my work, I create the stages that give voice to these women with the masses and actually expose their exploitation. The injustice is not from the outsiders, alone, but from within. The members of the government and the traditional rulers who are there to protect the women's interests conspire against them. So, how often do we hear the rural people's side in the national accounts of our recent history? How often are these women's voices heard? These staged hearings, about them and by them in their own voices become permanent and urgent means of provoking local and global dialogues about their conditions. Hopefully, through such critical engagement with a wider audience, I can elicit empathy for their cause. That's why in the play Then She Said It!, the epilogue, ‘A Nation in Custody,’ represents a staged trial before an international jury, where the women take their case to an imagined international jury who will hear both sides of the story and be compelled their verdict."



Ampka, Awam, Theatre and Postcolonial Desires, Routledge (New York, NY), 2004.

Banham, Martin, James Gibbs, and other editors, African Theatre: Women, School of English, University of Leeds (Leeds, England), 2002.

Dunton, Chris, Make Man Talk True: Nigerian Drama in English since 1970, Hans Zell (London, England), 1992.

Evwierhoma, M., Female Empowerment and Dramatic Creativity in Nigeria, Caltop Publications (Ibadan, Nigeria), 2002.

Falola, Toyin, editor, Nigeria in the Twentieth Century, Carolina Academic Press (Durham, NC), 2002.

Katiwiwa Mule, Women's Spaces, Women's Visions: Politics, Poetics, and Resistance in African Drama, 2007.

King, Bruce, editor, Commonwealth Drama since 1910, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1992.

Otokunefor, Henriette C., and Obiageli C. Nwodo, editors, Nigerian Female Writers: A Critical Perspective, Malthouse Press (Oxford, England), 1989.

Uko, Inibong I., Gender and Identity in the Works of Osonye Tess Onwueme, Africa World Press (Trenton, NJ), 2004.


Black Scholar, spring, 1995, Patrick E. Idoye, review of Go Tell It to the Women: An Epic Drama for Women, pp. 55-58.

Literary Griot, spring, 1991, Afam Ebeogu, "Feminism and the Mediation of the Mythic in three Plays by Tess Onwueme," pp. 97-111.

World Literature Today, winter, 1987, review of The Desert Encroaches, p. 147; autumn, 1989, J.O.J. Nwachukwu-Agbada, review of The Reign of Wazobia: A Play, pp. 729-730; summer, 1992, J.O.J. Nwachukwu-Agbada, "Tess Onwueme: Dramatist in Quest of Change," pp. 464-467; spring, 1993, Harold A. Waters, review of Go Tell It to the Women, p. 431.


Dr. Osonye Tess Onwueme: Playwright, Novelist, Scholar, Cultural Activist, International Speaker, Performer,http://www.writertess.com (December 1, 2007).