By Japhet Alakam
Recently, in far away America, one of Nigeria’s respected playwright, Prof Tess Onwueme, an eminent University Professor of Global Letters at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire was honoured by her university.
It was in celebration of the Archival Collection of Professor Tess Osonye Onwueme,The distinguished Professor of Cultural Diversity and English for her contributions to the literary world. It was such a wonderful occasion that attracted many scholars and dignitaries, including His Excellency, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, GCFR,who was represented by Molara Wood, (Special Assistant to the President on Documentation).
Prof. Onwueme is one of the most important playwrights the country Nigeria has produced. She is, without doubt, the most published and celebrated female playwright to emerge from the continent of Africa. Most of her plays include; ‘Tell It To Women’ and ‘What Mama Said’; ‘Then She Said It’ (a play) and ‘Riot In Heaven’ (drama for the voices of colour) and others.
At the well attended event, many speakers spoke glowingly about her, among them were; Dr. Sonja Darlington (Beloit College, Wisconsin), who delivered a paper on the work of Tess Onwueme.
Dr Onyeka Iwuchukwu (National Open University of Nigeria), who spoke in commendation of Dr. Tess Onwueme. Berith Danse (Artistic Director, Theatre Embassy, The Netherlands), who also spoke in honour of Dr. Onwueme and James C. Schmidt, Chancellor, University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire who delivered remarks on why the university was honouring the Playwright and her works.
In his remarks, President Jonathan who brought greetings on behalf of himself and the good people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria commended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire on the occasion of the celebration of hosting of the Archival Collection in honour of Professor Tess Onwueme who is unarguably Africa’s most famous female dramatist.
According to him,”The letter informing me about this event from the Chancellor and Foundation offices of the university, eloquently describes Prof Onwueme as “a national icon that Nigeria and the United States shares with the world”.
That description succinctly captures the essence of the great woman of letters and internationally acclaimed scholar and poet who earned her place in the globe writing plays with themes of social justice, culture and the environment.
She belongs to the distinguished community of conscience for whom art is not for its own sake but rather for the sake of life. In her various literary exploits she has used her art to give loud voices to traditionally silenced views such as African Women, life in Africa, the youth and the global poor.
“This special recognition by the university where she has distinguished herself as a Professor of Cultural Diversity and English is the icing on the cake on her too numerous recognitions and awards over the years.” He congratulated Prof Onwueme and encouraged her to continue to churn out more and more literary outputs to reshape the world which is in dire need of pedagogy from nurturers of global civilization in her mould.
He wished that this great icon will continue to serve as a figure of expression of the great bond between Nigeria and the United States of America, adding that “the people of Nigeria are proud of her and her accomplishments, just as we cherish the monument Wisconsin University has erected in her honour.”
He stated that “the Honour is befitting. Very few playwrights are candidates for the canon with their very first works. Prof. Tess Osonye Onwueme is one of those rare few. From the beginning, her work stood out with a striking poise; and three decades of prolific literary production have only confirmed, with copious proof, her original promise.”
Prof. Onwueme’s career is characterised by a trajectory of consistency, range, beauty and energy. She has engaged the environment in every sense of the word. She has explored gender relations, and has created a fresh paradigm for performance aesthetics. Her works have also helped revive a dimension of that unity of conception and performance that the world is in danger of forgetting.
Having emerged as one of the most vibrant voices of the radical theatre tradition in the Nigeria of the 1980s, Onwueme went on to become a leading voice of politically committed drama in our country. She was one of the ‘Cock Crow Voices’ in what is now known as the ‘Alternative’ tradition of Nigerian letters during our Second Republic, fearless artists that engaged in the daring quest for a better Nigeria.
Through the fierce beauty and commitment of her work, Onwueme has stood against all forms of oppression, including gender discrimination and environmental exploitation in the Niger Delta.
According to Prof. G. G. Darah, Prof. Onwueme “challenged the orthodoxies of drama by women writers… she took on the issues of women victims of exploitation in the oil industry and attendant environmental crisis… Many of her female protagonists are activists who resist marginalisation and gender stereotype.”
Dr. Onwueme’s works have become canonical and we in Nigeria are proud of her achievements. Her energy remains a source of inspiration to generations of young men and women at home and now, evidently, in the rest of the world. Her commitment to her art has also inspired a new dimension of respect for both artistic and scholarly excellence.