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.


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Tess Onwueme: Versatility, Multi-media Consciousness Are Ingredients Of Enduring Theatre Arts Practice

OsonyeTessOnwue_ me
OsonyeTessOnwue_ me

Tess A. Onwueme is a household name in literature and drama. A Professor of Global Letters and a world - class writer, she has carved a niche for herself, first at home and now at the University of Winsonsin, where she has several awards to her credit. She teaches literature, drama and African Studies. In an interview with BRIDGET CHIEDU ONOCHIE, she expressed fear over the future of the Nigerian theatre artist and emphasised the need for versatility and multi-media consciousness if he must remain relevant in the face of modern entertainment trends. She talked about theatre life in the US. She also listed factors responsible for the decline in theatre life as well as the impact of non-theatre professionals on Nollywood films.

Theatre Art in the US

STUDENTS are students everywhere, though facilities may be more sophisticated with all the powerful communication systems in America which tend to facilitate various multi-media channels that students are privileged to have. This is coupled with the fact that in most institutions, professors teach with computers and visual aids that make students grasp ideas concretely.

Here, it is not quite as sophisticated and privileged. At the time I was in Nigeria, you rarely find available life screen television. Yet, the degree of interest was not lacking. You have students with light in their eyes, ready to learn. Again, Nigeria by nature is a theatrical society and I know that at the time I taught between 1980 and 1988 in Ife and other universities, there was hunger for learning. Students were engaged with learning in spite of the technological handicap. People had very fatal imagination and were eager to learn and propagate knowledge. It is like comparing apples and oranges.

The average student in American tends not to be very expressive but we are very expressive people. The experience is different and the kind of rewards – intellectual and creative is also different. But by and large, I see that those who are really engaged, especially as I come with a third world knowledge, non- western perspective, white students who are hunger and thirsty for knowledge about other cultures and other world, lap up what one has to offer, likewise our students in Nigeria when I was in the country. I haven’t taught in Nigeria in the last two decades, I don’t know what they do now but in terms of quality of graduates coming out these days, there is a lot more to be done to be perfect.

America is not a perfect society but there is a conscious effort to improve. Every semester, the lecturer is evaluated anonymously. So, there is accountability. As a Senior Professor, I am not above the law. Every one of us has our courses subjected to evaluation by students. Your own peers will evaluate you too but in our system at home, there is a long way to go with accountability at all levels and the measuring of quality of what we have to do. In the US, you anticipate assessment at every level; you are always striving to improve on what you did before. You want to know how you have fared, what the pitfalls are so that you can advance. People are committed to measuring and that is the reason they are always on the move to go to the next level.

Back home, we are satisfied being consumers of other people’s creativity and even when people genuinely want to bring in new ideas, there are so many road blocks mounted by those who sometimes, see you as a threat to what already exists.

Life performance

It is very much alive in the US. It is a social event and people dress up to watch it. In Nigeria, the upper and middle classes go to parties and clubs. I am not saying people don’t do that elsewhere but I fine that average socialite in Nigeria is not a friend of theatre. The idea of learning and celebrating life through that medium is almost alien to our people. What they call fun is different but in the US, the elite, the middle and even the ordinary people value having to go to the theatre to watch and get away from the mundane affairs of the world, to grow politically, physiologically and mentally. Again, in our society, where insecurity has become the order of the day, even those who used to attend theatre have stopped. From 1984 to 89, I had four of my plays that we took on tour of the National Theatre; there was a vibrant theatre culture then in Lagos. It was then that NTA discovered my play – The Broken Calabash.

So, the political and security situations in the country also affect the manner in which people adapt. Also, almost everyone in the village owns a television set and the home video has come to stay. The democratisation of channels of entertainment and viewership means that people are less animated about going to the theatre. So, theatre is getting challenged by the new technologies that have information in the hands of everyone, not only here, but all over the world.

Modern technology and theatre development

Modern technology has offered significant solutions to portability of information and entertainment but they have also become some kind of octopus that tends to enshroud and almost suffocate other kinds of media that have become vulnerable. Whereas the physical presence, the immediacy and the personal interaction or the interactive nature of the encounter on stage between actors and the audience is extremely valuable, the problem of dissemination is progressively one that the artist, who is limited to theatre stage, has to grapple with. No matter how powerful a play production is, it is also very expensive. Mounting a major production in Nigeria is only going to be as effective as the number of people that come to watch it at that time.

The future of Nigerian theatre artists

The older generations are still alive. There are still those who want to experience the real thing but my vision of the future is that an average artist must learn to be versatile and multi-media conscious so that one is not completely limited to one form or channel. The world is a moving stage and life itself is like a masquerade, you don’t watch a masquerade from one spot. As more channels evolve, we have to be dynamic as artists to also adapt and be enriched. Rather than just be over-specialised in one form, it is enriching and much more lucrative to be multifaceted to be able to adapt new methods and take advantage of modern technologies.

Even in plays, you can use multi-media. If it is a film production, nothing prevents you from blending with documentary, still photos and all that. So, the challenge of the artists today, no matter where we are, is to see the wholistic picture. While thinking local, we can act global.

Theatre artists and Nollywood

It looks to me that the greatest asset to qualify anyone, especially ladies from going into Nollywood is beauty. Once you look physically beautiful, it doesn’t matter what fabric you are made of, you become instant celebrity. They teach you to move your body. So long as we continue to be superficial in terms of value, the appeal is not going to be there; same thing with the quality of drama and production. So, the measurement of quality and performance and perfection doesn’t seem to be one yet in the fore front of the burner, external glitter appears to take precedent. It is a lot better than what it was few years ago.

Hopefully, with time, we will improve but so long as it is a club of associates, who set the bar against others, the intellectual artists as against the popular, there is a world of difference and separation and it is not inclusive in the sense that those, who are the artists, the ones who study and know the trade professionally are outsiders in the industry, so long as the culture of mediocrity that seems to be prevailing everywhere in the country continues, so long as those in the leadership position are not interested in what happens in the industry, anything goes for now.

Art and the evolution of science and IT

In the context of adversity and poverty, people are thinking of what will give instant reward. The areas of Information technology, medicine and engineering are new and there are demands for them. These are new job areas and vacancies need to be filled. But we are making a grave error in this country. What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul? The soul of our society is the value and sensibilities we subscribe. No matter how much we try to denigrate the art, the artist has always been there, trying to inscribe and quilt the value system and knowledge of the world we live in.

It is like the inner fabrics, we cannot quantify the value of art. Whereas you can see a bridge or the product of technology, the artist nourishes the inner soul of the individual and the society. We are racing towards economic, material transformation at the risk and at the expense of the social wealth and social consciousness, values and sensibilities.

We talk about corruption, why would society not be corrupt if all that matters is money. The basic culture of civility and the whole idea of sharing and communality are no longer important. For money to have value, it has to go hand in hand with enhancement of the systems and strategies of inculcating consciousness of our values, harmony, unity, honesty, hard work, justice and so many others and these are where the artists thrive most. The artist as a philosopher, nurturer and doctor of the mind of the society is being undervalued and pushed aside and so long as we continue to do that, the society continues to grapple with growing problems that are prevailing because we chase after wealth at the risk of quilting the inner fabrics of our souls through the values we hold and share. It is like a society that is naked from the inside out.




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