The Arts

December 21, 2010

Tess Onwueme Receives an Exalted New Post

By Nduka Otiono with additional online reports
Africa’s foremost female playwright and Distinguished Professor of Cultural Diversity and English at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, USA, Osonye Tess Onwueme has been honoured with a new appointment as the University Professor of Global Letters at her institution.

An honour reserved for the most accomplished academics, the full-time tenured appointment was recently given to her in recognition of her “increasing prominence in the field of contemporary playwrights.” The honour comes with “a new contract and new duties” consistent with the high profile of the appointment.

In appointing Professor Tess Onwueme to this exalted platform, Dr. Patricia Kleine, Vice Chancellor & Provost of the University of Wisconsin noted in a letter to the author of over a dozen award-winning plays: “You bring honor to the University of Wisconsin. It is only fitting the University recognize your extraordinary talent.”

The path to this remarkable achievement of a specially named Professorial Chair by Tess, as she is fondly called by many admirers, is paved with hard work and other honours. One of the best known and most prolific women playwrights of African descent, Onwueme has received many international awards, including the African Literature Association’s prestigious Fonlon-Nichols award in 2009. The award is given annually to a black writer whose works have demonstrated a commitment to democratic ideals, humanistic values and literary excellence in writing.

In 2007 she was appointed to the US State Department Public Diplomacy Specialist/Speaker Program for North, West, and East India.

In December of the same year, her socio-political allegory, Parables for a Season, had its world premiere in Khartoum, Sudan, under the auspices of the KICS International Theatre, directed by the American artistic director, Mark Webber.

The BBC World Drama Service produced Onwueme’s Shakara: Dance-Hall Queen in their worldwide broadcast in the fall of 2004 and 2005, respectively.

From April to May 2001, her play, The Missing Face, was staged off-broadway by Woodie King, Jr. Producing Director at the New Federal Theatre, New York.   As a playwright, scholar, activist, Tess Onwueme’s works have a wide range of social, political, historical, cultural and environmental concerns of the masses in the global community today, specifically women, youth, people of the Nigerian Niger-Delta, as well as Africans in the continent, the African Diaspora, with related Third Worlds.

An international conference focusing on Onwueme’s work was held in 2009 in Nigeria, Onwueme’s homeland. The high-profile event attracted participants from around the world.

Recently, the Hindi translation of Dr. Tess Onwueme’s play “Shakara: Dance-Hall Queen” was showcased in New Delhi in August 2010 as a Khatakali drama–an elaborate traditional form of narrative theatre with rich costumes that emerged in southern India more than 300 years ago.

The International Centre for Kathakali in India further took the English version of Onwueme’s play on tour throughout India, beginning with the performance in New Delhi in September 2010. That was the center’s first production of a foreign author. In the letter announcing the production plans to Onwueme, Sanal Edamaruku, president of the International Centre for Kathakali, called her “one of the greatest living authors.”

“The international acclaim is simply exhilarating and humbling, all at once,” said Onwueme, who recently returned from India. “Somehow it makes me feel like a ‘grown up girl,’ and yet with a lot more room to grow bigger and taller.”

The International Centre for Kathakali, the India National School of Drama and Jawalharal Nehru University have collaborated to perform “Shakara, Dance-Hall Queen” as a “modern play” in Onwueme’s original English form.

Born into the Akaeke family of Ogwashi-Uku, Delta State, Nigeria, Tess earned a B.A. in Education from the University of Ife in 1979, and an M.A. from the same institution in 1982, graduating with the Faculty Prize. She earned her Ph.D. in English at the University of Benin in 1987. Since joining the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, Wisconsin in 1994 as a Distinguished Professor of Cultural Diversity and Professor of English after her years of teaching in both Nigerian and American universities, Tess Onwueme has continued to serve as a role-model for women and youth through her inspirational writing and speaking that are steadily shaping and transforming public consciousness of issues impacting black women and youth in global societies today.

Tess 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 (UNESCO) conference. “I soaked knowledge from the warm prestigious gathering of intellectuals and global policy-makers on this subject (of Culture and Development) that has become my life,” Tess 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.”

Her works, which have won numerous awards including several of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) drama prizes, explore a range of social, political, historical, cultural and environmental concerns of the masses, women, and youth being left behind in the geopolitics of today’s global market culture, the people of African descent — particularly those in Africa, the inner cities of America, the Nigerian Niger-Delta and other impoverished communities around the world.

In 1994, she 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, she 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 has also taught African dance at UW-Eau Claire. “My plays are so embedded in music and dance,” Onwueme remarked. “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 Contemporary Black Biography. “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.”

Those challenges she decided to confront at the University in particular, and the world as her stage, have been recognized with this special appointment to a named Professorial Chair in Global Letters, yet another first in the University. Responding to news of the appointment Tess Onwueme declared, “Now truth is naked; staring me in me the face and I cannot but behold it.

I’ve been on a very long journey. Climbing hills, very steep hills (all the way from childhood trudging through the Iyi Ada stream in my ancestral land of Ogwashi-uku, Nigeria, to the thorny marketplace of “Ameri-Nigerian” academe) to arrive at this cute vista for an ultimate destination. “ She added: “What a joy as I look back, counting the (in)visible miles behind me, the roads (not) taken, and yet, looking ahead to step into new frontiers of possibility in the global landscape.”