MAILED: June 13, 2001
EAU CLAIRE - It’s a long way from Eau Claire, Wis., to New York
City, but internationally recognized playwright and University of
Wisconsin-Eau Claire English Professor Tess Onwueme was living in both places
for several months — at least in her heart and her head.
Onwueme’s play, “The Missing Face,” opened at
Woody King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre April 28. Onwueme made a quick trip to
New York in April to consult with King and the play’s director, Patricia
White, and then returned to UW-Eau Claire to finish out the spring semester
before the play opened to the public and the critics. She traveled back to New
York for the play’s closing performance on May 27.
The story of “The Missing Face” will seem familiar
to anyone who has read Onwueme’s play “Legacies” or has seen the 1995
UW-Eau Claire production of it, and Onwueme admits the play has undergone
several transformations, including a title change, on its journey from
original idea to this current off-Broadway production. The earlier experience
of staging “Legacies,” which is about finding one’s roots, led Onwueme
to believe the play would seem more relevant to American audiences if she
changed the setting, the characters’ names and some situations. The play’s
action moves from Milwaukee to Nigeria.
The earlier version of the play was originally
published in 1988 in Onwueme’s native Nigeria, just before she moved to the
United States in 1989.
It has surfaced again as the result of Onwueme’s
nine-year-long participation in the Playwrights Discovery/Development
Initiative, under the auspices of Chicago’s ETA Creative Arts Foundation,
directed by Abena Joan Brown. At the invitation of Brown, Onwueme joined the
distinguished list of African American playwrights and directors who form PDI,
a think tank that meets for the purpose of developing a school of thought for
new directions in Black Theater and for trying out new plays. Woody King, Jr.,
founder and producing director of The New Federal Theatre and the National
Black Touring Circuit, also is one of the approximately 10 participants in PDI.
According to Onwueme, King, “one of the country’s
most significant black theater directors,” had wanted to produce one of her
plays for a long time. He eventually decided that “The Missing Face” would
be a good choice because it is an epic drama with provocative themes that
strike deep with African Americans and emphasize the universal quest for home,
identity and belonging. Although King had seen several stage readings of the
play in workshops, it had never been produced with the kind of resources and
financial backing that he believed it deserved. The perfect opportunity came
when King was preparing to celebrate the New Federal Theatre’s 30th
anniversary by organizing The African Project, which showcased two plays by
outstanding black playwrights, one of which was Onwueme’s “The Missing
Although the idea for the production had been in the
works for several years, the actors finally selected only had three weeks to
rehearse before their opening night, which is one reason why Onwueme went to New
York in April — to act as consultant and help iron out any small problems.
“I was very reassured in terms of the quality of the
cast that had been assembled,” said Onwueme.
Stephanie Berry, a well-respected stage, screen and film
actress and founder and artistic director of Blackberry Productions, a
Harlem-based theatre company and workshop, plays the main character, Ida Bee. An
African American woman and single parent living and working in Milwaukee, Ida
had a long-ago love affair with an African student studying in America, but when
he discovered she was pregnant he abandoned her and returned to his family in
Africa. Years later, when Ida becomes concerned for her teenaged son’s future,
she takes him back to the African kingdom of Idu (a mythical setting) to find
the boy’s father, discover their shared ancestral roots and give her son a
sense of pride in his manhood and identity.
Although the play highlights the struggles of one
African-American woman to help her son grow to manhood without a father to guide
him, Onwueme believes that the theme is both universal and timely and that
single mothers of many different backgrounds could relate to this story and the
need to reconnect with one’s cultural roots and traditions.
In a review published in New York’s Amsterdam News,
reviewer Laura Andrews calls the play a “revolutionary standout” that
combines “substantive material and expressive poetry.”
Onwueme, one of Africa’s most recognized female
writers, is now an American citizen and writes and teaches about African
cultural traditions and other contemporary socio-political issues. Before coming
to UW-Eau Claire in 1994 as a Distinguished Professor of Cultural Diversity, she
taught at Montclair State University, Vassar College and at several Nigerian
universities. She has published numerous plays as well as scholarly articles on
African drama, culture and literature, and her works have earned awards and
recognition in Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States. In 1999 she won
a $98,000 Ford Foundation grant to research and write about Nigerian women.
Janice B. Wisner
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
Updated: June 13, 2001