Dr. Osonye Tess Onwueme
Playwright   Novelist   Scholar   Cultural Activist   International Speaker   Performer


"Tess is a rare jewel in this country..." - Dr. K. Kendall, Smith College, MA.


Exalted New Post / Fonlon Nichols Prize / My Work Is Larger Than Any Female Ideology 

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BBC World Service Presents Tess Onwueme's SHAKARA

A play for today A collaboration between BBC World Service Drama and the African service brings the story of one Nigerian teenager to the airwaves this month. Nina Adams profiles the writer of Shakara

Osonye Tess Onwueme is a playwright whose work is preoccupied with questions of identity, class and poverty - through which runs a rich vein of women's voices. A Nigerian, now based in the USA, Onwueme and her writing are rooted in her home continent, from plays such as Tell It to Women to her novel The Elephant Has No Butt, themes of African folklore and traditional culture underline her work. She has a string of honours and awards to her name and is currently in residence as Distinguished Professor of Cultural Diversity and English at the University of Wisconsin, USA. Among her acclaimed works is Shakara - Dance Hall Queen, a new production of which can be heard in Play of The Week this month, it also forms part of the American Performance season of plays.

Through the voices of women, in Shakara and her other plays, Onwueme draws out universal themes of conflict of the inner-self is a recurring motif. Faced with the unfairness of a world which subjugates loyality and honour while rewarding cruelty and selfishness, Onwueme's characters construct dialogues which lend a complexity to questions of right and wrong.

Shakara is a 17-year-old girl in Lagos tormented by the love of her hard-working mother and the model behaviour of her born-again-Christian sister. Shakara despises the poverty from which she springs, and rejects her mother and sister as fools, remaining loyal to a system in which exploits them while the rich opportunities of life pass them by.

Shakara's best friend, Dupe, is the daughter of a wealthy drug-baroness and while Shakara envies her material wealth, Dupe in turn covets the security of a loving family. In her search to find a place in the world - one of money and dubious respect - questions of what is fair and right complete with a drive to materialism and Shakara finds herself turning her back ono the values with which her mother has raised her, in order to get ahead.

These twin relationships - between Shakara and her mother and Shakara and Dupe - are central to the play. Onwueme plays with the paralells and contradictions between these two girls' ambitions and desires "What Shakara lacks [money, material goods] Dupe has. What Shakara has [a loving mother] Dupe wants." As Shakara battles to overcome the unfairness of life by venturing further into a rebellious lifestyle Dupe tries to protect her. "They become surrogate mothers for each other in a way," Says Onwueme, "her friend can offer everything her mother can't. What Shakara realises is that in a vacuum of financial security, in a society where injustice surrounds her, she must short-circuit the system. This is what leads her into dysfunctional behaviour. Joining the gangster culture, is a route to recognition, and wealth."

Across so many societies, the message which young people like Shakara recognise is that the struggle to improve ones lot in life often depends less on hard work and more on playing the system. And Onwueme points out that when society is faced with the criminality of disaffected youth, if absolves itself from all responsibility, assigning blame elsewhere. There is an emptiness to these lives, young people left without options, in which society ought to recognise its own hand - but does not.

Onwueme's literary influences span the globe from Wole Soyinka, to Shakespeare and from Albert Camus to George Bernard Shaw. He lyrical texts employ a story-telling style which belies the complexity of the messages. In representing African stories, and African lives, Onwueme is championing the disadvantaged of the World as so many literary voices have before her. Described as "the lbsen of her culture, the playwright who dares to raise new issues", Onwueme uses the dramatic form to express an optimism for the future, for change and a challenge to the repressive powers over people's lives. But it's an optimism tempered by a recognition that in the noble struggle, one sometimes commits an ignoble act.

Shakara (Tuke Sonaike) lives in one of the poorer parts of Lagos, Nigeria but desperately wants more out of life. She thinks her mother is not daring enough, her sister is too religious and her house is embarrassingly small. A typical wilful teenager, she sees her only hope for a better life in the city's night-clubs where she is held in such high regard by her fellow clubbers. Her hunger for a life of riches increases and as a consequence, so too does the conflict with her mother, a righteous, hardworking woman who just wants her daughter to calm down. Will Shakara listen?

This co-production between BBC World Service Drama and the African Service was recorded entirely on location in and around Lagos, providing listeners with a unique opportunity to take a journey through one of Nigeria's biggest and liveliest cities. Shakara can also be heard in Africa as part of the African Performance season.

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