Tess Osonye Onwueme

Playwright | Scholar | Environmental & Cultural Activist | International Speaker/Performer

Tess Onwueme

Africa's Best Female Playwright Based in The USA:

Nigerian-born playwright and 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature nominee, Tess Onwueme is an internationally known playwright and scholar, who rose to prominence writing plays with themes of social justice, women, culture and the environment. She held the exclusive and eminent position of University Professor of Global Letters, and Professor of English, at the University of Wisconsin- EC for nearly three decades.

She has won several international awards, including: the Fonlon-Nichols Award (2009); the Phyllis Wheatley/Nwapa Award for Outstanding Black Writers (2008); the Martin Luther King Jr./Caeser Chavez Distinguished Writers Award (1989 & 90); the African Distinguished Authors Award (1988): and the only four-time winner of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Drama Prize with her plays: The Desert Encroaches (1985); Tell It to Women (1995); Then She Said It (2003) and Shakara; Dance-Hall Queen (2001). Among her other award-winning works are: The Missing Face (2002); No Vacancy (2005); What Mama Said (2004); Legacies (1989); The Broken Calabash (1984); The Reign of Wazobia (1988; 2014), and the novel Why the Elephant Has No Butt (2000).

Tess Onwueme was appointed to the US Department Public Diplomacy Speaker/Specialist Program for India in 2007. The 2009 Tess International Conference––exclusively devoted to Onwueme’s work––was held in her honor by international writers and scholars in the Nigerian capital Abuja in 2009. The mother of five children whose lifework is officially housed in the University of Wisconsin System Archives, following the 2014 Declaration of a Proclamation in her honor by the Senate/Legislature of the State of Wisconsin, USA, the award-winning author is highly celebrated as a ground-breaking pioneer female dramatist, acclaimed by notable writers and scholars around the world as they comment:

  • Internationally renowned for her award-winning plays, Dr. Tess Onwueme is the literary soul-mate of Chinua Achebe, Wole Solyinka, and Ngugi wa Thiong.o. She is the first African woman dramatist to break into their ranks, 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...Tess Onwueme’s creative endeavors have led some to call her the “Ibsen of her Culture" and others to rank her artistic contributions with Toni Morrison, Anton Chekov, Albert Camus…Her works have been performed in many locations, like Nigeria, India, Sudan, Sweden, Canada, the UK and the US…Students have read her plays at Cornell and New York Universities, Smith College and where I teach–Sonja Darlington (2014).
  • Tess 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…[she] consolidates her position among the leading dramatists from Africa––Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1997).
  • Onwueme’s creative works continue to influence and generate significant interest around the world, as they are widely produced/staged, studied, taught, and written about in scholarly books, dissertations, theses, book chapters, journal articles, and international media. Onwueme’s works have a wide range of social, political, historical, cultural and environmental concerns of the masses in the global community today…[And] Onwueme’s prolific dramaturgy is remarkable for being located within the tradition of cultural activism that challenged the corruption of the Nigerian postcolonial government... and as a Nigerian intellectual living and teaching in the West, she accomplished shuttle diplomacy (Batra 2010).
  • Through the voices of women, Onwueme draws out universal themes of conflict. She uses the dramatic form to express an optimism for the future, for change and challenge to the repressive powers over people’s lives––Nina Adams, on the BBC World Drama Service Magazine Production/Broadcast of Onwueme’s Shakara (2004/2005).
  • The protagonists of Dr. Onwueme’s plays tend to be women who revolt against their misuse by an outdated and inhumane system... In many ways, one might see Tess Onwueme as the Ibsen of her culture, the playwright who dares to raise new issues and write A Doll's House – so to speak – for her people. These sociological reasons allow us North Americans to identify strongly with the women in Tess Onwueme's plays. Her dramas are very much universal plays for an international audience as they speak to basic human rights of nationality, age, sex, or race–Daniella Gioseffi, American Book Award Winner of Women on War (1990).
  • Onwueme’s plays “continue to influence and generate significant interest around the world, as they are widely produced/staged, studied, taught, and written about in scholarly books…and international media - Kanika Batra

  • Through the voices of women Onwueme draws out universal themes of conflict…She uses the dramatic form to express an optimism for the future, for change and challenge to the repressive powers over people’s lives - Nina Adams, BBC World Drama Service (2004)
  • Onwueme's plays continue to influence and generate significant interest around the world, as they are widely produced/staged, studied, taught, and written about in scholarly books and international media––Kanika Batra (2010).
  • From my riveting experience of Onwueme’s drama, I can say that few contemporary playwrights can match and sustain the incredible power and influence of this writer. The number of scholarly works on Tess’s work is an index of the significance of her works to contemporary scholarship. The theatrical productions of her plays done, not just in the continents of her birth and present residence in America but also in Europe and India, speak of the uniqueness and universality of her dramatic writings. Therefore, I delightfully add my own personal insights as a professor and dramatist myself and especially as one who recently produced and directed Tess Onwueme’s award-winning play Shakara: Dance-Hall Queen to critical acclaim in New Delhi. An international conference focusing on Onwueme's work was held in November in Nigeria, following the author’s Fonlon Nichols award in 2009. The conference was titled "Staging Women, Youth, Globalization and Eco-Literature. A growing army of teachers, protegees, scholars, and performers studying, teaching, writing, and performing Onwueme’s drama, along with critical book-length studies, numerous book chapters, journal articles, and dissertations.- Shiva Prakash (2016).
  • 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 multicultural educational environment. Her work speaks to studies of gender, race, class, and cultural difference. "Tess is a rare jewel in this country..." - Dr. K. Kendall, Theatre Chair, Smith College, Northampton, MA, USA
  • "Tess Onwueme's What Mama Said is a spellbinding theatre work! It is written as if Dr. Onwueme is composing a symphonic work... Along with her other masterwork, The Missing Face [this drama] places Tess Onwueme in the ranks of Wole Soyinka, Athol Fugard, and Derek Walcott." - Woodie King, Jr., Producing Director at the New Federal Theatre in New York City.
  • "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, George Bernard Shaw, Athol Fugard, August Wilson, Amos Tutuola, Gloria Naylor, Buchi Emecheta, Dennis Brutus, Alex LaGuma, Mariama Ba, and Sembene Ousmane." - Poet-Laureate, Professor Eugene Redmond, Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, IL, USA.
  • Tess Onwueme, award-winning playwright, recently served as a Distinguished Visiting Scholar/Artist at the University of Houston. Her presentation stimulated a tremendous amount of interest and enthusiasm...for which she received a standing ovation from The University of Houston campus administrators, faculty, staff, and students as well as its community supporters. Tess Onwueme is an intellectual of the first order; she is a dynamo; she exudes energy.- Dr. Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, Univ. of Houston.
  • "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." - Professor Ernest N. Emenyonu, Prof. & Chair Department of Africana Studies University of Michigan.
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Creative Works

Award-Winning Works by Tess Onwueme:

What Mama Said, an epic drama

What Mama Said, an epic drama

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Shakara: Dance-Hall Queen: a play

Shakara: Dance-Hall Queen: a play

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Tell It To Women: an epic drama

Tell It To Women: an epic drama

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Three Plays: an anthology of plays by Tess Onwueme

Three Plays: an anthology of plays by Tess Onwueme

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