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A voice for the voiceless: Celebrated playwright’s works, teaching help students expand thinking

| Denise Olson

As an internationally celebrated playwright and dramatist with a vision for social justice and equality for all, Dr. Tess Onwueme uses her powerful works to give a voice to those who are voiceless.

"I am hungry for peace, harmony and a more united world where we share each other's pains and each other's joys — a world where we have greater sensitivities toward justice and when we talk about equality, it should not just be on paper, it should be a value that we live," says Onwueme, who is the first named chair of University Professor of Global Letters and professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

One of the best known and most prolific women playwrights of African descent whose plays are staged and taught around the world, Onwueme's works 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. She also addresses issues facing people of African descent — particularly those in Africa, the inner cities of America, the Nigerian Niger-Delta and other impoverished communities around the world.

Onwueme recently donated her collection of manuscripts, lectures, papers, photographs, correspondence, reviews and multimedia spanning her nearly 30-year career to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation. The "Tess Osonye Onwueme Papers" are housed in the McIntyre Library's Special Collections and Archives department.

In celebration of Onwueme's gift, a special production of her play "The Reign of Wazobia" was presented last fall in Schofield Auditorium.

Playwright AND Pioneer

Onwueme's work as a playwright and scholar has earned her many international awards, including the African Literature Association's prestigious Fonlon-Nichols award, which 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, the U.S. State Department appointed Onwueme to the State Department's Public Diplomacy and Specialist/Speaker Program for North, East and West India.

Onwueme says she finds inspiration for her work in the world around her, the environment and the topical issues of the day, and especially those that impact women and the masses.

"You don't have to go looking for the topics of inspiration because they look for you," Onwueme says. "It is in our reality. There is so much poverty around us and inequality and inequity in the distribution of wealth. I am particularly interested in using the stage as a space for communal dialogue about issues that impact the larger society, and as a forum to help provoke discussion and rethinking about how we can evolve a better world for each and every one of us. I strongly believe that with an awakening of consciousness of what we can do to harness our own individual and collective potentials we can make the world better. We need to work together as a team rather than as adversaries to strengthen our collective wellbeing."

Over the course of her illustrious career, Onwueme has worked with many scholars and professionals around the world, including Dr. Steven Daniel, a lecturer with the department of theatre and performing arts at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria. Daniel has directed several of Onwueme's plays in Nigeria and co-directed the fall production of "The Reign of Wazobia" at UW-Eau Claire.

"Tess has proven to be a writer that should be reckoned with internationally because she has refused to be silenced, especially in the context of how she unearths traditional forms and indigenous practices and uses them to make contemporary statements," Daniel says. "In that context she is brave and bold and exhibits a lot of courage that others like her, especially amongst women writers, have not dared to do. She refuses to accept traditions on the surface and asks critical questions about what they mean and how we can use them in modern times. Theater is a very powerful medium because it is performance based and brings to light very clearly the lived experiences of people. Tess is prolific and is making a very valid contribution to dramatic literature and theater production."

Dr. Grace Uchechuwku Adinku, a lecturer in the department of theatre arts at the University of Ghana, Legon, Accra, Ghana, also co-directed "The Reign of Wazobia."

"The issues Tess addresses in her plays, such as domestic violence and child abuse, are issues that happen around us every day," says Adinku. "The more we talk about them either through our drama, poetry, prose or music, the sooner people will start to see that this world can be a better place if we can be each other's keeper. Tess is a significant female voice and is very consistent with her message."

Onwueme says she sees the ideas in each of her works as seeds thrown out into the social, cultural and political environment to be fertilized through society's interaction and social dialogue, ultimately causing the ideas to germinate and grow.

"Because of my work, I hope people will develop greater sensitivities to the needs of women, the poor and oppressed," Onwueme says. "We need to build a collected consciousness of the value of unity in diversity and how the human race can enrich one another by seeing and valuing the worth of every individual. Diversity can be the source of our strength rather than that which divides us."

Impact on campus and community

When Onwueme began her career at UW-Eau Claire in 1994 as a professor of English and the first Distinguished Professor of Cultural Diversity, she was asked to serve as a catalyst for infusing cultural diversity throughout the university's curriculum.

"I invested a lot of time, energy and passion in mobilizing faculty from across the university to create interdisciplinary courses and programs that speak to diversity," Onwueme says.

Onwueme's efforts to infuse more global and multicultural studies into the curriculum helped prepare the campus for the diverse faculty and scholars that followed her to UW-Eau Claire, said Dr. David Jones, a professor of English and women's studies at UW-Eau Claire.

"Tess' presence at this university has been very important and is one of the reasons I was drawn here after completing my education," says Jones. "As one of the campus' equity, diversity and inclusivity fellows, I try to support the continuation of that growth. Sometimes you have success, and the university climate and other factors help to improve students' experiences, and other times you need energy on the front end to get things going. I think it's good to have people coming to the university at different times to help with these outcomes for all students."

Onwueme shares with her students the experiences and backstories that contribute to the writing of her texts and efforts to emphasize the importance of diversity, says Jones.

"Tess understands developments in drama in both contemporary and classic contexts," Jones says. "She is a tremendous resource for our students."

Sophomore Emilio Taiveaho, a double major in English literature and Latin American Studies from Quito, Ecuador, says his experience in Onwueme's classroom has been one of the most formative experiences in his time at UW-Eau Claire.

"As an educator, Dr. Onwueme helped me understand the significance of the narrative, particularly when it comes from the perspective of the voiceless," says Taiveaho. "Through her class, I was taken to nations all over the world and introduced to the plights, burdens and struggles of the oppressed. I was able to recognize patterns, and through that, make sense of the world I live in. In the stories she told, I drew parallels with my own experience in Ecuador and as an immigrant in the United States. My own history began to make sense."

Onwueme's style of teaching is exciting and encourages students to expand their thinking in different ways, says Taiveaho.

"When Dr. Onwueme lectures, her passion takes the best of her and you catch a glimpse of greatness — the greatness that cannot be taught, but that one is born with and carries with them; a unique greatness that is not easily found."

The global reach

Onwueme's plays continue to interest scholars throughout the world because of the global relevance of the social issues they address and their calls for equality and justice, says Dr. Jennifer Shaddock, professor of English at UW-Eau Claire.

"Tess' plays are the subject of a considerable number of scholarly studies, including books, articles and dissertations, written by critics all over the world interested in issues surrounding drama as a genre, as well as specific themes such as the empowerment of women, the cultural legacies of colonialism and Nigeria's reassertion of its own cultural values as a nation state independent from Great Britain," says Shaddock.

Onwueme's work began to appear 20 years after Nigeria achieved independence from Great Britain in 1960, says Shaddock.

"During colonization, literature in Nigeria's educational system was primarily British, and with independence came the need to reinvent how Nigeria was perceived both within and outside the country through new stories that recuperated Nigerian culture," says Shaddock. "At the same time, the women's movement was flourishing on a global scale. Onwueme's plays are situated amid both of these massive historical movements and speak directly to them in powerful and provocative ways."

The Tess Osonye Onwueme Papers

The "Tess Osonye Onwueme Papers" provide another valuable resource for UW-Eau Claire students, staff and faculty, and will be of interest to scholars throughout the world, says Greg Kocken, head of McIntyre Library's Special Collections and Archives department at UW-Eau Claire.

"We are really excited to have this collection here," says Kocken. "To house a world class collection like this, which will serve as a resource for students on this campus to understand Tess' works on a much deeper level, is something special for us and this university. We also hope that scholars from around the country and the world will come to our campus to study the collection as part of their own research."

Kocken is working with Melissa Schultz, a history graduate student, to catalog the collection. Schultz is organizing the collection of materials into a series of categories.

The first series focuses on Onwueme's professional materials including original manuscripts, notes, correspondences, newspaper articles, and props and photographs from her plays, Schultz says. The next series focuses on her work in cultural diversity and the last series focuses on her personal and biographical materials.

"Going through a collection like this is like taking a magnifying glass into somebody's life," Schultz says. "I get to see the correspondence and read about certain things that affected her. Putting all of the little pieces together to see how she has made such a career in writing, and seeing her experiences all over the world is just amazing."

A safe place to dwell

While Onwueme has traveled and lived all over the world, she says she found her true home in Eau Claire after accepting the position of Distinguished Professor of Cultural Diversity 21 years ago.

"I was looking for the ideal place where I could grow as a writer and scholar while providing a safe place for my children," Onwueme said. "When I visited UW-Eau Claire for the first time, I saw a place that closely resembled the traditional academic environment that I was familiar with in Nigeria. I also saw a city that was much more amenable to raising children than where I was previously teaching in the United States."

Onwueme's decision to donate her collection of materials to UW-Eau Claire was sparked by the New York Public Library's interest in acquiring it.

"Although a lot of other universities and institutions have expressed an interest in my collection of work, it is a lot more meaningful to me to leave my legacy at the place I have called my home for all of these years," Onwueme says. "I'm handing over pieces of me that have been gathered and collected. I feel a sense of safety in person in Eau Claire and I believe those pieces of me collected in the archives will be safe as well. This is where I believe they will dwell in peace. I want Eau Claire to be on the world map and remain there. I want it to become more visible and memorable. It's my way of directing the eyes of the world to our beautiful, peaceful campus."