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When ABU honoured Onwueme with Tell It To Women


A scene from the performance

A scene from the performance

Professor Tess Onwueme is not an alumnus of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. She obtained all her degrees including the Ph.D from the Universities of Ibadan and Benin.

Though she taught in Nigerian universities for some years before relocating to the United States where she presently works, ABU was also not one of the institutions she has taught.

Yet, the school thought it worthy to honour her last weekend by staging one of her numerous plays, Tell It To Women, in recognition of her contributions to the body of literary knowledge in Nigeria.

The production, which took place at the school’s Drama Village was the effort of the department of Theatre And Performing Arts. It was directed by three of its lecturers led by Steve Daniel, who coincidentally, was one of Onwueme’s students at the University of Ibadan.

For this reason, the Playwright was invited all the way from the University of Wisconsin, Eau-Clair, as a special guest at the occasion.

The school authorities, families and friends of Onwueme as well as those who have crossed her path graced the performance. It also served to officially commission the digital lighting equipment that Onwueme donated to the department.

The performance itself did not run short of expectation of the lecturers and students of theatre and performing arts department of the school, which has a track record in practical theatrical teachings.

The play, Tell It To Women was written in 1992 and bears evidences of Onwueme’s thematic preoccupation – the need to protect indigenous African culture in an ever-evolving world.

Since every work of arts draws inspiration from the topical issues prevailing in the socio-political and economic lives of the people at the time, the play picks its major theme from the controversial Better Live for Rural Women programme initiated by the wife of former Military Head of State, late Mariam Babangida in the 90s.

The play not only interrogates the level of acceptance as well as the impact of the project on the lives of Nigerian rural women but also the implications of the tenets of the project on the few village women, who overzealously imbibe the ideology.

No doubt, the programme is laudable as captured in the play and in line with Onwueme’s advocacy for women empowerment towards national development, unfortunately, the gulf between the educated, economically empowered women who seek to enlighten the rural counterparts and the rural, uneducated women, who are often not very comfortable with the approaches of their city counterparts, plays out prominently in the play.

In fact, that seems to have triggered the conflicts that permeate sequence of actions in the play.

Through the eyes of Daisy and Ruth (two young women obsessed with the ideals of westernization and mordernity), the Better Life for Rural Women project (Metaphor for Westernization) becomes a sad commentary on the implications of mordernism or civilization on many African families.

In the course of the events, it becomes obvious that the Better Life programme also comes with certain values that contradict extant African culture and tradition.

What follows are such aberrations as lesbianism, extreme quest for women emancipation, liberation, equality and freedom from patriarchy and its attendant subjugations.

As expected, the attempt to bruise the ego of an African man through gender equality doctrine is met with resistance, thereby pitching the rural men against the city women, whose teachings men believe, run contrary to the people’s tradition and culture.

At the end of the day, the differences are resolved and traditional African culture survives the near-suffocating Western influence.  The younger generation of African women are therefore entrusted with the continuation of African cultural sensibilities.

As it is the tradition with most of Onwueme’s  plays, Tell It To Women features prominent women, who take centre stage in the play. As if to make the performance more acceptable, the play, which is originally set in a fictitious Idu community, is adapted to fit into the prevailing socio-economic realities in Nigeria.

Hence, in the opening scenes, references are made to the kidnaped school children of Chibok. This is complemented with the ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ movement and slogan.

The audience also sees the different ethnic groups that make up Nigeria play out in the use of costumes, music and languages, thereby giving the performance a national outlook.

The scenic design of the 400-seater Drama Village theatre might not be fantastic in terms of modern embellishment, the ancient-looking facility no doubt, met the immediate need of a village setting requirement.

The production itself, which was done by the 300 Level students of the theatre arts department was tight and showed evidence of commitment and good interpretation of the text by both lecturers who directed the play as well as the students.

Although only floodlight was used throughout the duration of the play, what the production lacked in terms of lighting was reciprocated with excellent use of the stage and unhindered blend of dialogue, music and dance by the cast.

A great dancer, the theatre art spirit in Onwueme could not be tamed as she joined the cast on the dance floor.

Recall that this was not the first time Onwueme was being honoured. Aside numerous awards for her works, the University of Wisconsin last October honoured her with the establishment of e-archive. The archive was meant to house every of her work including manuscripts and critical essays on her works. It was gathered that the Foundation is still in the process of gathering her works from all over the world.

Addressing the young cast that gathered around her at the end of the performance, Onwueme stressed that she has played her role in Nigeria’s literary arena. She has promoted and defended indigenous culture through the stage and according to her, it is left for the younger generation of playwrights, especially women to continue from where she stopped in the use of theatre to correct imbalances.

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