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Production celebrates professor's lifetime of success as playwright

Internationally acclaimed playwright Dr. Tess Onwueme brought to life the global issues of gender inequality and power imbalance with the performance of her award-winning play "The Reign of Wazobia" at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

The campus production of "The Reign of Wazobia" was a celebration of Onwueme's donation of the "Tess Osonye Onwueme Papers" to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation. The special collection of manuscripts, lectures, papers, photographs, correspondence, reviews and multimedia spanning the artist's almost 30-year career are now housed in the McIntyre Library's Special Collections and Archives department.

A diverse cast of students, faculty, international colleagues and community members joined Onwueme, the first named chair University Professor of Global Letters and professor of English at UW-Eau Claire, as the "The Reign of Wazobia" was performed in Schofield Auditorium.

The play tells the story of Wazobia, a female character who rebels against the traditional customs of her people and speaks out against the degrading position of women, the masses and underclass in society. Wazobia serves as a voice to the voiceless, bringing awareness to the low status of women in society while also encouraging them to join in the fight against all forms of discrimination, the tyranny of power and environmental degradation, Onwueme says.

Of the 23 plays she has written and produced, Onwueme said she decided to present "The Reign of Wazobia" because it resonates her passion for the global and local questions of oppression and diversity.

"Though published in 1988, the ideas in this play are still applicable today," said Onwueme, who served as UW-Eau Claire's first Distinguished Professor of Cultural Diversity before assuming the institution's position of University Professor of Global Letters in 2010. "Today we are still facing oppression in the form of women trafficking, domestic violence, environmental pollution and class inequality, to name a few. These issues touch all societies. 'The Reign of Wazobia' is a call for people to come together on a global level to understand and appreciate challenges and work together to resolve them. The name 'Wazobia' is derived from the languages of the three largest ethnic groups in Nigeria. 'Wa' for Yoruba, 'zo' for Hausa and 'bia' for Igbo. All of these words mean 'come.'"

Through her powerful writing and high-profile positions at UW-Eau Claire, Onwueme has worked to bring to light important societal issues while also celebrating and emphasizing the importance of diversity. The casting in her "The Reign of Wazobia" campus production reflects her commitment to diversity, she said.

"The play is about diversity and unity, and the casting needed to reflect that," Onwueme said of bringing people from various parts of the world to campus to be part of the production. "I hand-selected the cast to represent the faces of America and the world. We have different generations, ethnicities, races and genders represented in the cast."

Among the cast members were Dr. Steven Daniel, a lecturer with the department of theatre and performing arts at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria; Dr. Grace Adinku, a lecturer in the department of theatre arts at the University of Ghana; and Michael Osuji, a master flutist, traditional folk musician and story teller who has performed internationally including at Brown University in Rhode Island, the University of Ibadan and University of Lagos in Nigeria.

Daniel and Adinku co-directed the production and worked on set and costume design. Osuji created traditional African music for the play. He worked with Eau Claire resident Poppy Moelter to create modern music for the production. Integrating two types of music showed the modern ideals of Wazobia in contrast to the traditional norms and customs of her society, Daniel said.

"This play was exciting for me because I think Tess was trying to prod us to ask questions about what the institutions and structures of society are doing in relation to getting women to participate in political, social and economic life," Daniel said. "Culturally, this play belongs to a different society, and having to translate it into another one is part of the challenge and experimentation for me. This play also gave an opportunity for people from American society to understand people from different societies. That exchange and dialogue is interesting."

UW-Eau Claire student actors gained experience from working with an internationally renowned playwright.

Having the opportunity to work directly with the writer of the play on character development was a memorable experience, said Aurora Froncek, a junior public history major and theatre arts minor from Darien, who played one of the four wives of the deceased king who resists Wazobia's ideals.

"Actually being able to talk with the playwright about the meaning of the play allowed me to get more involved with my character's development," Froncek said. "I was able to collaborate with Tess and bring this character to life more than I would have just reading the script on my own."

Members of UW-Eau Claire's faculty also played integral roles in the play's production.

"It was an incredible opportunity to work with an international cast with such diverse talent," said Julie Eklund, a senior lecturer in the departments of English and communication and journalism, who played the lead role of Wazobia. "Tess is a ball of energy and is such a gracious spirit. I am honored to have been an integral part and to be connected to the legend that is Tess Onwueme. She just makes everyone around her better."

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, the 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 has received many international awards, including the African Literature Association's prestigious Fonlon-Nichols award. The award 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.