When it comes to the literary world, no other person could have written a concise comment that aptly captures Osonye Tess Onwueme’s works than the master of letters himself, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, acclaimed Kenyan novelist, essayist and playwright.
“In her works, Onwueme has shown daring in her exploration of ideas even if they lead to subjects and themes which may seem taboo. Onwueme is eminently a political dramatist, for power affects every aspect of society. She explores these themes with a dazzling array of images and proverbs. Her drama and theatre are feasts of music, mime, proverbs and story-telling . . . Thus, Onwueme consolidates her position among the leading dramatists from Africa,” wa Thiong’o writes.
Tess Onwueme was born on September 8, 1955, at Ogwashi-Ukwu, in present day Delta State of Nigeria to the family of Barrister Chief Akaeke and Maria Eziashi. Osonye Tess Akaeke, had to drop her maiden name after marrying an agronomist, I. C. Onwueme, after her secondary education.
She started her academic journey at Mary Mount Secondary School, Agbor, it was while at the school that she first dabbled in writing. Despite her early marriage, she did not allow herself to be deterred and went to the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ife, for her Bachelor in Education degree, graduating in 1979. In 1982, she obtained a Masters in Literature, and bagged her Ph.D. at the University of Benin in African drama.
With a firm educational background, she eventually became a playwright, scholar and poet, who rose to prominence writing plays with themes of social justice, culture, and the environment. Through her plays, she was able to use the theatre as a medium to showcase historically-silenced views such as African women, and shedding more light on African life.
Dr. K. Kendall, Theatre chairman at Smith College, Northampton, MA, USA, had this to say about her: “Onwueme’s plays not only bring the range and beauty of Nigerian culture to an international audience, they create the artistic bridges crucial to the development of a multi-cultural educational environment. Her work speaks to studies of gender, race, class, and cultural difference.”
It was because of the proficiency of her works that poet-laureate, Professor Eugene Redmond of Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, IL, USA, had to associate her with the best of minds in the literary world.
“Among her literary soul mates are Wole Soyinka, Ama Ata-Aidoo, Samuel Beckett, Derek Walcott, John Pepper-Clark, Albert Camus, Chinua Achebe, Toni Morrison, Anton Chekhov, Femi Osofisan, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and George Bernard Shaw.
Others are Athol Fugard, August Wilson, Amos Tutuola, Gloria Naylor, Buchi Emecheta, Dennis Brutus, Alex La-Guma, Mariama Ba, and Sembene Ousmane.”
Dr. Ernest N. Emenyonu, professor and chair, Department of Africana Studies at the University of Michigan, also had to drop a hint about her: “Dr. Tess Onwueme, by reputation, is a powerfully engaging speaker of oratorical dimensions. The audience at the April 2002 African Literature Association (ALA) 28th Annual Conference at La Jolla, San Diego, got no less
when she addressed them in her keynote address… Ebullient, dramatic and of suffusing intensity, she spoke about African womanhood but her concerns were about universal womanhood and she held men and women of all nationalities spellbound with facts which enlightened but disturbed the mind. Tess Onwueme creates passion with her eloquence, enriching every verbal articulation with charisma and charm. She entertains even as she addresses issues of critical substance.”
She is the first African woman dramatist to break into the ranks of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o — because of her internationally-renowned award-winning plays and novels, so that What Mama Said, Tell it to Women, Shakara: Dance-Hall Queen, The Missing Face and The Reign of Wazobia — became staples of international college and university curricula in the 21st century.
Prolific author and riveting speaker of over twenty plays that are studied and produced worldwide, Onwueme sustains her advocacy for the global poor and youth, along with the experiences and concerns of the African Diaspora in her creative works.
With an enriched international experience of teaching in several universities in Africa and the USA, her career started as a Graduate Assistant, 1979- 1980 in the University of Ife. 1980-1981: Assistant Lecturer, Literature in English Department, University of Ife, Nigeria. 1982-1987: Assistant Professor of English and Head, Performing Arts Programme, Federal University of Technology, Owerri, Nigeria.
1986 – 89: Associate Professor of English, and Head of Performing Arts Programme, Centre for Igbo Studies, Imo, but now Abia State University, Nigeria. 1988 – 89: Head, Performing Arts Unit, Imo State University, Okigwe, Nigeria. 1987 – 88: Vice President, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Nigeria. 1988 – 89: Acting President, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA).
1989 – 1990: Martin Luther King, Jr. Caesar Chavez, Rosa Parks Distinguished Writer and Associate Professor of Africana Studies, College of Lifelong Learning/Humanities, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan. 1990 – 1993: Associate Professor of English & Multicultural Literary Studies, Montclair State University, Montclair, New Jersey.
1992 – 1993: Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies (vg.), Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York. 1994 – 2009: Appointed Distinguished Professor of Cultural Diversity and Professor of English, University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. With such a tall resume, 2010 to date: she was named Chair Appointment: University Professor of Global Letters, University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, USA where she still teaches.
She has also won several international awards, including: the prestigious Fonlon-Nichols award (2009), the Phyllis Wheatley/Nwapa award for outstanding Black writers (2008), the Martin Luther King, Jr./Caesar Chavez Distinguished Writers Award (1989/90), the Distinguished Authors’ Award (1988), and the Association of Nigerian Authors Drama Prize which she has won several times with plays like The Desert Encroaches (1985), Tell It To Women (1995), Shakara: Dance-Hall Queen (2001), Then She Said it (2003), among numerous honours and international productions of her drama.
She was four times winner of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Drama Prize for the following plays, Then She Said it (2003), Shakara Dance-Hall Queen (2001), Tell It To Women (1995), and The Desert Encroaches (1985), Dr. Onwueme has also been honoured with these prestigious international awards: the 1988 Distinguished Author’s Award for her overall contribution to African literature, the 1989/90 Martin Luther King, Jr. Distinguished Writer’s Award, and in both 2000 and 2001, she was awarded major grants from the Ford Foundation for her creative writing and drama production, Who Can Silence the Drums? Delta Women Speak!
Onwueme was married with five children — Kenolisa Onwueme, Ebele Onwueme, Kunume Onwueme, Bundo Onwueme, and Malije Onwueme. But in 1998, she re-married again, to Obika Gray, a Jamaican political scientist.