This news release describes past events and should be used for historical purposes only. Please note date of release.

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
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University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Professor’s
Play Produced in New York

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 Face.”
         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.

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Janice B. Wisner
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
Schofield 201
(715) 836-4741

Updated: June 13, 2001