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 

Guardian news (The State Of My Art)


Latest NEWS 


Now, Onwueme wants to go into film

Award-winning dramatist and lecturer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, US, Prof. Tess Onwueme, reflects on her recent adventures in scholarship and writings, writes AKEEM LASISI From writing to teaching and advocacy, a lot of activities are happening in the world of celebrated dramatist, Tess Onwueme. The Ogwuachi-Ukwu, Delta State-born scholar first established herself as a force to reckon with when she excelled on a road less travelled by many Nigerian women writers – play writing. While many of them are distinguished novelists and poets, only too few have performed well in drama, especially during post the late Zulu Sofola era.
With plays such as The Broken Calabash and The Reign of Wazobia, Onwueme has kept the stage alive. Her impact became more real when she practically won for ‘keep’ the Association of Nigerian Authors Drama Prize, winning it consecutively for about three times in the 1990s. That was the same season that ANA judges were complaining that many of the entries they were getting in the category were drab. Yet, while the University of Wisconsin-based Onwueme has continued to write plays, her fortune is expanding on various other fronts.
In an online interview with our correspondent, she first raps philosophically as she explains how beautifully life is generally treating her in the outside world.
“Interesting,” she says. “And I wish I could just give you one simple answer. But I can’t, knowing how intricate things are or can be. Just like the weather, which you can’t always predict or arrest or tame to your own will or direction, life here - like anywhere else - has its own rhythm. And would I say its own mind?
“Yes, I dare say that life does have its own mind, peculiar as it may be. Like a current, it flows and runs this way or that. Sometimes it’s high tide. At other times it’s low or even mid-stream. And yet we keep striving, moving, going, and trying to bend and steer it our way, our direction. At times we succeed. Other times, we don’t, as we can’t stop the rain from falling. What matters is not to allow ourselves to remain and stay drenched – ‘crying in the rain’ - but to strive the best we can to dry up ourselves and look up, knowing that the weeping sky does smile, and will smile at and for us.”
In actual terms, things are flowing so fluidly for her that she describes work at the university as being handsome. She concedes that like a relationship with a handsome man, the experience comes with its own baggage. But it has altogether being a story of fulfillment.
Onwueme notes, “I’ve been at the University of Wisconsin, where I was appointed a Distinguished Professor of Cultural Diversity and Professor of English, since 1993. Last year, I was elevated to an unprecedented new height of an endowed or named chair as the University Professor of Global Letters - a most prestigious exclusive position of honour reserved for the most accomplished and celebrated writers/scholars such as our own venerated Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. And to be the first African woman to hold such a position and to be named in the same breath with eminent men like these? Ha! What else could I ever wish for?”
In tune with the global ambassadorship, she is also spreading her tentacles beyond the confines of her university. She is navigating the vast world on speaking engagements, performing/producing her plays, which according to her, are not simply to entertain but to also stir up the mind about the growing realities of poverty and pollution engendered by corruption of values. She feels the need to jump-start necessary conversations for healing through the projects.
Her Shakara: Dance-Hall Queen, was recently produced in New Delhi, India. Describing the production as highly successful, she adds that it is a fruit of the endeavours of a prodigious cast of artistic experts who dared to experiment in something novel and relevant to the Indian and global community. Among them is the famous Indian poet, dramatist and Professor of Drama and Aesthetics, Shiva Prakash, at the Advanced Institute Studies and Jawal Nehru University in New Delhi. He worked in collaboration with the President of the International Khatakali Centre for folk drama, Sanal Edamakuru. The play was translated into Hindi, with both the original English and Hindi versions produced/staged concurrently in New Delhi.
Another of her plays, What Mama Said, is currently being translated into Hindiu and the cast for both the English and Hindiu productions are being assembled.
“I’m now in the process of staging my play, No Vacancy, in my university and with the plan to take that production to Stockholm, Sweden for the forthcoming Women International Playwrights Conference in 2012,” Onwueme enthuses.
“Late last year, I finally completed a major novel project, Things Left Unsaid, which I’d been working on for a very long time. The manuscript is now with an international commercial press that’s fallen in love with it.”
But she is also keeping touch with home. Recently, for instance, she was a happy guest at the production of her play, Then She Said It, shortly after Director Steve Daniel at the Performance Studies at the Ahmadu Bello University showcased Shakara. This was almost in tow with the Abuja University Drama Department which featured a production of Onwueme’s award-winning Reign of Wazobia on stage during the Tess International Conference held in her honour in Abuja, after she was awarded the prestigious Fonlon-Nichols Award in the USA in 2009.
Like many other Nigerians, she is happy that the country got it right in the April elections, saying she sees a new dawn coming. She professes that Nigeria is a miracle waiting to happen and that she, like other patriotic contemporaries, cannot wait to be part of the miracle, since only Nigerians can make or break the country. She is favourably disposed to coming home to play a role.
Her words, “The success of the elections is a great development that I would applaud any day. As a world citizen, I’m already a part of it as I develop and contribute to Nigeria and the world in all that I’m doing. What remains is the official direct call to service at home in appropriate capacity, which I’d more than welcome at this stage in my life and career.”
Related to this is the fact that Onwueme is itching to launch into the Nigerian film industry, where someone like her is, indeed, very needed based on the fact that the dearth of good scripts is one of the banes of the sector. If she has any hindrance, it is time, which can be the best and worst friend of everyone.
She recalls that before Nollywood’s emergence, some of her earlier plays, including The Broken Calabash and The Reign of Wazobia, had been filmed for international features. When Vincent Maduka, Peter Egho and Lai Aransanmi were at the helms of affairs at the National Television Authority, The Broken Calabash was filmed for national broadcast for the 25th Independence celebration of Nigeria. Later, the same production by the NTA was deployed for an international film festival in Bukinafaso.
“Nollywood has come to stay,” Onwueme says. “And I am now actually itching to make the film and moving image my new stage as it travels more easily, globally. The biggest enemy that I have to combat each day to accomplish all that haunts me is time. What remains for me to do or write, or stage, or document feels like toxin in my blood. And going global with film is one nagging toxin in my blood that I must exorcise."


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