Onwueme, Tess Osonye 1955–
Tess Osonye Onwueme 1955–
Playwright, poet, professor
Nigerian writer Tess Osonye Onwueme has established an international reputation as a playwright. She first achieved national prominence in 1985 when her play, The Desert Encroaches, won the Association of Nigerian Authors contest for drama. Since then, Onwueme has written, produced, and published more than 15 plays, and has won several national and international prizes for her work.
While Onwueme is less famous in the United States, she and her work are well-known in Africa, where writers are celebrities in the same way that movie stars are elsewhere. “People tend to celebrate writers as spokes-persons who distill truth from various realities,” she was quoted as saying in a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire press release. “Established writers attain a certain level of prominence as the ones who nurture the soul and mind of the people.”
Onwueme, an outspoken critic of the status quo, has explored a wide range of political themes in her dramas: the ties that bind people of African descent, the clash between tradition and modern life, the interdependence of the races, and minority women’s struggle for power. According to J. O. J. Nwachukwu-Agbada, writing in World Literature Today, Onwueme “is one of the most consistently political writers Nigeria has ever bred.”
“Each of Tess Onwueme’s published plays is a clarion call for social change, the cultivation of new attitudes and new hopes,” wrote Nwachukwu-Agbada in World Literature Today. “The society she targets in her works for the stage is both national and international, and at each level her position seems to be that the old order of traditional, social and economic oppression must give way to a new and more healthful one.” Onwueme’s plays are required reading in courses on African myth, folklore, and women’s studies at many prestigious colleges and universities, such as Cornell University, New York University, and Smith College.
In addition to her career as a writer, Onwueme has taught at several universities in Nigeria and the United States. She has served as a distinguished professor of diversity and professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. In a statement on her academic and creative interests, Onwueme wrote, “I am especially concerned with affirming and representing the silenced voices of women, people of African descent, and native Americans in the curriculum, knowledge, culture, and politics.”
Tess Osonye Akaeke, the daughter of Chief Akaeke and Maria Eziashr, was born on September 8, 1955 in Ogwashi-Uku, Nigeria. Her parents divorced when she was very young, and she was raised by her grandparents in the nearby village of Isa. “Work was a part of my
At a Glance…
Born less Akaeke, Sept. 8, 1955, in Ogwashiuku, Nigeria; daughter of Chief Akaeke and Maria Eziashr. Married first husband, I.C. Onwueme, an agronomy professor 1974; children: Kenolisa, Ebele, Kunume, Bundo, and Malige; divorced 1996; married second husband, Obika Gray. Edtication: University of Ife, B.A, 1979, M.A., 1982; University of Benin, Ph.D., 1987.
Career: Taught at University of Ife, 1979-82; lmo State University, 1983-89; and the Federal University of Technology, 1982-87, ail in Nigeria. Martin Luther King/Caesar Chavez fellowship, Wayne State University, Detroit, Ml, 1989-90, Associate professor of English and multicultural literature, Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 1990-91. Visiting professor of African studies and English, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY, 1992-93, Distinguished professor of cultural diversity and professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Eau Claire, WI, 1994-.
Selected awards Association of Nigerian Authors prize for drama for The Desert Encroaches, 1985; Celebrated Writer, Africana Studies, Kent State University, 1993; Nigerian Achiever of the Year in Literature, Network Nigeria, Inc., 1994.
Addresses: Office— Department of English, UW-Eau Claire, 416 Hibbard Humanities Hall, Eau Claire, WI 54702.
everyday life,” Onwueme said in an interview with CBB. “I woke up early to fetch firewood and yams. Sometimes I was late to school because I had not finished my chores.” When Onwueme was in her third year at Mary Mount Secondary School (the equivalent of high school in the United States), she developed an interest in writing poetry. “By the time I graduated, I had written three big notebooks of poems,” she told CBB.
In 1974, soon after she graduated, Onwueme married her first husband, I.C. Onwueme, a professor of agronomy. During their marriage, the couple had five children: two sons, Kenolisa and Bundo, and three daughters, Ebele, Kunume, and Malige. Despite the demands of marriage and motherhood, Onwueme was able not only to pursue a degree in education at the University of Ife, but also to continue writing prolifically. “Long ago, I cultivated the habit of waking up at 4 or 5 am,” Onwueme told CBB. “By the time the family is up, I have already stolen three hours.”
In 1978, a dispute between the Nigerian government and university faculty led to a temporary shutdown of the University of Ife. Onwueme intended to use the time to write poetry, but found herself writing a play instead. “Other voices called,” she said in her interview with CBB. “I didn’t discover drama—drama discovered me.” The result was her first play, A Hen Too Soon, the story of an educated daughter who rebels when she is promised in marriage to an old man.
Onwueme earned a B.A. in education from the University of Ife in 1979, followed by an M.A. from the same institution in 1982. She completed her Ph.D. in English, with a specialty in African drama, at the University of Benin in 1987. Even as she worked to finish her graduate study, Onwueme was building a reputation as a playwright. In 1983, A Hen Too Soon was finally published. While critics recognized that Onwueme had talent, they also found flaws in the play: “Like most artistic debuts, A Hen was an amateurish work,” J. O. J. Nwachukwu-Agbada wrote in World Literature Today. “The play revealed two basic problems: the conception of artistic verisimilitude was poor, and the linguistic facets fell short of the level for which accomplished African dramas are now recognized.” The opinion of another critic, Afam Ebeogu, writing in Nigeria Magazine, was clear from the title of the article: “A Writer Too Soon.”
In 1984, Onwueme published the play The Broken Calabash, which also told the story of a woman who is not allowed to choose her husband. In this play, Onwueme’s talents began to shine. “Here both the theme and the language are better implemented,” Nwachukwu-Agbada wrote in World Literature Today.
By 1985, Onwueme’s play The Desert Encroaches won the Association of Nigerian Authors prize for drama. In this fable, most of the characters are animals that represent various countries or regions of the world. The lion symbolizes the United States, for example, while the bear represents the Soviet Union. The animals of the South, representing Africa, rage against the animals of the North and West, who are threatening the world with nuclear destruction. Writing in World Literature Today, Nwachukwu-Agbada described The Desert Encroaches as “a clarion call for change in a world dominated by the arms race, by the covetous lust for others’ resources, by oppression and repression, by ideological rigidity and similar lethal maladies.”
While completing her doctoral study, Onwueme wrote three more plays, which were published in 1986. Like her previous work, the plays all explored political themes. The play Ban Empty Barn was about two hungry chicks, who wonder why they starve when their neighbors live in opulence. The Artist’s Homecoming told the story of a daughter who wants to pursue an artistic career against the wishes of her parents. Cattle Egret versus Nama is about corrupt police officers that have to meet their arrest quotas, even if it means bringing in innocent citizens.
Nigerian critics have called Onwueme’s 1988 play, The Reign of Wazobia, her first “feminist” work. In the play, a tribe names a woman, Wazobia, as temporary king for three years after the traditional male king dies. (“Wazobia” is a word that combines Nigeria’s three major ethnic languages—“wa” for Yoruba, “zo” for Hausa, and “bia” for Igbo.) At the end of the three year term, however, Wazobia refuses to give up the throne, and urges the women of the tribe to stand up for their rights. J. O. J. Nwachukwu-Agbada wrote in World Literature Today that stylistically, Wazobia is “one of Onwueme’s most satisfying plays. The language… (is) full of the cadence of typical Nigerian speech idiosyncrasies.”
In addition to being an extremely prolific writer during this period, Onwueme also taught at several Nigerian universities. From 1979 to 1982, she taught literature at the University of Ife. From 1982 to 1984, she taught humanities courses at the Federal University of Technology. Onwueme also taught literature at Imo State University from 1983 to 1989.
In 1988, Onwueme traveled to the United States for the international premiere of The Broken Calabash at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. In recognition of the play, she was awarded the Martin Luther King/Caesar Chavez fellowship at Wayne State, a position she held from 1989 to 1990. “I had never intended to move to the United States,” Onwueme told CBB. “But it was so invigorating to meet other women playwrights, and by then my work was becoming known.” From 1990 to 1991, Onwueme was an associate professor of English and multicultural literature at Montclair State University in Upper Montclair, New Jersey. She was also a visiting professor of African studies and English at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York from 1992 to 1993.
In 1992, Onwueme published Tell It to Women: An Epic Drama for Women, an exploration of the role of women in traditional and modern African society. Critics have interpreted this drama as an indictment of Western-style feminism. Patrick E. Idoye, writing in the Black Scholar, claimed that “in its critique of modern western feminism, Go Tell It to Women enables us to under-stand that dynamics of traditional African society, especially the strength which it provides the rural people.”
In 1994, Onwueme received the Nigerian Achievement Award from Network Nigeria, Inc. The organization named her Nigerian Achiever of the Year in Literature, recognizing both her creative writing and her leadership. That same year, Onwueme became distinguished professor of cultural diversity, and professor of English, at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She was the first person to be named professor of cultural diversity, a post created by the university a year earlier. Half of the job would involve teaching, and half working with the university’s faculty to increase diversity in the curriculum.
In an interview with the (Eau Claire) Leader-Telegram, Onwueme compared the predominantly white campus of UW-Eau Claire to “a desert. It was dry and cold as far as diversity. It was my job to grow a forest in this desert.” In a five-year span, she helped to design such courses as Voices of Color in America, Black Writers, World Cultures, and Race and Racism in America. In addition to teaching classes on literature and drama, Onwueme also taught African dance at UW-Eau Claire. “My plays are so embedded in music and dance,” Onwueme remarked to CBB. “Dance, song, and music are integral to heightening the drama.”
“There are a lot of differences, and a lot of similarities, between African and American students,” Onwueme told CBB. “They are of a similar age, and so they have common experiences. But American students tend not to know much about other cultures—their history or their geography. They have no context for African literature, so I’m challenged much more, to provide the essential background so they can relate to the issues.”
Onwueme has staged several of her plays at UW-Eau Claire. One of these was Legacies, the story of an African American woman who journeys to Africa to find her roots, which was performed in 1995. “African Americans often have a lot of nostalgia for the motherland, and then when they go there they experience frustration and disillusionment,” Onwueme was quoted as saying in a university press release. “There is the myth that the motherland is still as it was in the past.” While the narrative was inspired by the African American experience, Onwueme chose a mythical setting for the play in order to make it more universal. “The play is also about linking up and connecting the races and peoples of the world to foster global unity, strength, and harmony,” she was quoted as saying in the press release.
Onwueme is a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars throughout the world. In 1998, she traveled to Sweden, where she participated in an international roundtable discussion on global culture, held in conjunction with a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization conference. “I was quite enthusiastic to share my views with this very prestigious gathering of intellectuals and global policy-makers on this subject that has become my life—cultural studies,” Onwueme was quoted as saying in a UW-Eau Claire press release. “Much as I’m regarded as a professor at UW-Eau Claire, I see the whole world as a classroom. Whether I’m teaching here or sharing my work and writings elsewhere, I’m constantly learning all the time.”
(Eau Claire) Leader-Telegram, Oct. 19, 1995; Oct. 18, 1995; Jan. 15, 1995; Nov. 23, 1994.
Wisconsin Ideas, December 1994, p. 4.
World Literature Today, summer 1992, p. 464.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an interview with Dr. Onwueme, Sept. 2, 1999, press releases from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire News Bureau, 1995-98, and the resume of Dr. Tess Onwueme, 1993.
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