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FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY

COLLEGE OF VISUAL ARTS, THEATRE, AND DANCE

PRODIGAL DAUGHTERS: POSTCOLONIAL WOMEN IN THREE PLAYS

BY TESS ONWUEME

By

KIMI D. JOHNSON

A Thesis submitted to the


School of Theatre
in partial fulfillment of the
requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts

Degree Awarded:
Spring Semester, 2008
The members of the Committee approve of the Thesis of Kimi D. Johnson defended on
February 5, 2008.

_________________________________
Mary Karen Dahl
Professor Directing Thesis

_________________________________
Carrie Sandahl
Committee Member

_________________________________
Natalya Baldyga
Committee Member

The Office of Graduate Studies has verified and approved the above named committee members.

ii
To my parents, George and Jeanne Johnson, for gifts beyond measure.

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

“Prodigal Daughters” would not have reached completion without the involvement of the
women who have helped me begin my career as a scholar of theatre. I would like to
acknowledge Laura Edmondson for the inspiration to begin this project, and Carrie
Sandahl and Natalya Baldyga for their input and encouragement throughout. Above all, I
would like to acknowledge and thank my advisor Mary Karen Dahl for her patience and
perseverance. She has seen this thesis from conception to completion, and without her
motivation and support it would not have met its full potential. Thank you, ladies.

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

ABSTRACT ...................................................................................................... iv

INTRODUCTION ............................................................................................... 1

1. THE BROKEN CALABASH: THE WOES OF GENERATIONAL


MISCOMMUNICATION.............................................................................. 21

2. PARABLES FOR A SEASON: DIVINELY APPOINTED


POWER DYNAMICS .................................................................................... 37

3. THE REIGN OF WAZOBIA: CULTURAL SHIFTS AND


REDISTRIBUTION OF POWER .................................................................. 52

CONCLUSION ................................................................................................ 71

BIBLIOGRAPHY ................................................................................................ 74

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ............................................................................... 78

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ABSTRACT
Nigeria’s pre-colonial, British colonial and postcolonial history colors every aspect of its
art and literature. The values and practices of the cultural groups that inhabit this country have
been in flux since the beginning of the colonial wars in the mid-nineteenth century and continue
to change in the light of the new theories and ideas that flood the country from both outside
forces and its own people. In particular, colonization affected the customs and ideals of the Igbo
people of Nigeria’s profitable Delta region. Tess Onwueme, a dramatist of Igbo extraction now
based in the United States at Wayne State University, writes explicitly of the changes forced
upon the Igbo people and their subsequent reaction to new ideas in their communities.
Onwueme’s fictionalized accounts of the struggles of Igbo women in her dramatic work
shed light on the changing perceptions of western feminisms, African womanisms, and female
agency in “traditional” communities. Her stories problematize the idea of a united sisterhood for
the promotion of world-wide feminism, and inspire us to reflect on our own agency in our
communities.
Through a close reading of Onwueme’s trio of plays, The Broken Calabash, Parables for
A Season, and The Reign of Wazobia, I explore the effects of western education on Igbo
communities and their inhabitants. How does education change how these women view their
communities and their communities’ view of them? How has a shared colonial past become the
catalyst for both sweeping change and stagnation? How is female agency employed and
received in these communities? In my exploration of these questions, I hope to understand the
impetus behind Onwueme’s heroines’ actions and explore female power in places of great
cultural change

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INTRODUCTION

Dr. Tess Osonye Onwueme (sometimes T. Akaeke Onwueme) is one of the more prolific
Nigerian dramatists writing today. While many scholars admire her work for its concentration on
women’s issues in the postcolonial state, this dramatist has intrigued me with her fascinating
dramatic narratives on Igbo women and for her positionality as a Nigerian-born scholar in
America. As a Delta-State (now Bendel State) native, Onwueme identifies as a part of the Igbo
people. Many of her plays concentrate on Igbo women and their encounters with the conflict
between Igbo cultural practices and Igbo women who have received an education in Nigerian
schools based on the Western education model. In particular, Onwueme pays attention to the
modern Nigerian woman’s struggle for acceptance in a conventional Igbo home.
Onwueme states, “We live in a society where women have it very hard. Their lives are
manipulated by others” (Onwueme 10). It seems as though Onwueme applies this statement to
all women, whether Western or “Third World,” placing the playwright firmly within a feminist
and womanist sphere of discourse. However, Onwueme concentrates on women from
backgrounds similar to her own—each of the heroines in the three plays I study struggles to find
the balance between contemporary ideals and desires and indigenous convention and practice.
Onwueme herself is an Igbo woman educated in Nigerian schools (established by British
colonizers), though she now lives and works in the United States. While women the world over
have it very hard, the women of Onwueme’s plays encounter unique and poignant challenges.
They face choices that will irrevocably alter their love lives, their political lives, and their
freedoms. As American poet Daniela Gioseffi writes, “the protagonists of Dr. Tess Onwueme’s
plays tend to be women who revolt against their misuse by an outdated and inhumane system”
(Onwueme 10). More often than not, Onwueme’s women triumph over the odds, though this
triumph usually comes at a heavy price.
Although audience reactions to Onwueme’s work vary greatly, the plays address themes
and conflicts that inspire discussions in which viewers can engage from a variety of perspectives.
My research has led me to concentrate on the subtle warnings the plays provide against
privileging a western set of ideals over those of the Igbo (or the opposite) in Onwueme’s work
and the discussions that arise from this conflict. As Dr. Onwueme writes and produces her plays

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in both the United States and in her country of birth (writertess.com), audience members in both
the west and Africa view and enjoy her work. In this thesis, I explore how a trio of Tess
Onwueme’s plays addresses the conflict between contemporary, educated Igbo women, and
more traditional Igbo practices in a postcolonial setting. What happens when Igbo women
educated outside their communities bring their new, western ideas home to roost? This conflict
illustrates not just the issues of women in Nigeria, but the conflict of women, older ideas and
traditions, and new systems of thought in countries the world over. Though there have always
been generational disputes between youths and elders in this ever-changing community, I have
chosen to focus on the tension that arises from the education of young, Igbo women and their
clash with the rest of their more conventional community. Onwueme’s plays, The Broken
Calabash, Parables for A Season, and the Reign of Wazobia each concentrate on contemporary,
Western-educated Igbo women who come in conflict with the conventional values and cultural
practices of their indigenous homes. In a close reading of these three plays, I will explore this
conflict and discuss why it is a concern within these fictionalized communities.
As an educated, western woman I find the conflicts that Onwueme introduces in her three
texts particularly compelling. Because I am an audience member educated in African feminisms
and postcolonial theory, I find myself in the interesting position of being able to analyze
Onwueme’s work through the lens of the western audience member and as an academic. It is my
hope that this positionality will enable me to deliver a nuanced interpretation of Onwueme’s trio
of plays, informed by my scholarly research and by my position as a mixed-heritage woman with
white privilege.

Nigeria and the Igbo


In order to understand the unique challenges that Onwueme’s characters must face, it is
necessary to have some background knowledge of Nigeria’s current state and the creation of that
environment. The Federal Republic of Nigeria is a large country (approximately twice the size
of Texas) located on the central Western coast of Africa. Most U.S. Citizens know Nigeria
primarily for being an exporter of crude oil: it is the sixth largest exporter in the world (Library
of Congress). Nigeria’s popularity in news vernacular stems secondarily from the frequent
violence surrounding this oil production (news.bbc.co.uk). Four primary ethnic groups comprise
the country’s population: the Igbo, the Hausa, the Yoruba, and the Fulani. There are also smaller

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ethnic groups in the country, though they are often overlooked by the media. The indigenous
groups govern themselves with guidance from the Nigerian state, and each has a distinctly
different set of religious and cultural practices (uiowa.edu).
In the past century and a half, Nigeria has weathered a number of major political shifts:
Nigerian citizens promoted some of these shifts while outside forces (primarily colonists)
imposed many others. Three major phases of Nigerian history pertain to my analysis of
Onwueme’s plays: Nigeria as a pre-colonial (19th century), colonized (early 20th century), and
postcolonial (mid-20th century) nation. In particular, I will examine the effects these power and
paradigm shifts have had on the Igbo population of Nigeria. As a cultural group, 1 the Igbo of
pre-colonial Nigeria operated as a patriarchal society. Africanist Judith Van Allen observes that
the rights, powers, and duties of men and women differed from each other, but the duties
associated with both genders were equally important to the community’s ability to function.
However, the men’s societal contributions were valued over women’s—men’s goods held higher
market value and society believed that their achievements were more valuable. As a result, men
held greater power and attained it with less opposition (Van Allan 165). British colonists
changed more than the political structure when they colonized Nigeria; they shifted the ways
women and men viewed each other and themselves. Colonization was the catalyst for changes in
custom and attitude from a community based on semi-equality to one where colonists
marginalized women entirely and placed male leaders in positions subordinate to newly created
(and British controlled) leadership positions. The British downplayed women’s importance in
the community by placing unproven members of the community, members who had yet to earn
the respect of the community through successful business or the wisdom that comes with age, in
positions of prestige in Igbo communities. These actions led to the flagrant abuse of women and
men alike, with women bearing the brunt of the mistreatment. These unproven men quickly
changed Igbo communities by restructuring the pre-colonial laws and customs of each village
(165).
In order to understand the tensions that create the conflict between western educated
women and their indigenous villages, we must first analyze the historical past that influences the
Igbo fear of western theory. Significant exchanges between the Igbo and the British in the pre-

1
Like the terms “tribe” and “race,” “cultural group” is a misnomer as traditions and practices can vary from
community to community within a group of peoples. It is, however, the most appropriate phrase I have encountered
to describe the peoples that comprise the Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba.

3
colonial, colonial, and postcolonial past have contributed greatly to the present tension between
Nigerian and western scholars.

Pre-Colonial (Pre-Twentieth Century)


Although Nigeria was not officially colonized until the beginning of the twentieth
century, the indigenous peoples (primarily Yoruba and Igbo) and the British colonists fought in
colonial wars from the mid-nineteenth century on. Scholars recognize the beginnings of
colonial influence at this time, though the British did not impose the reorganization of Igbo
power structures and policies limiting the privileges and movement of the Igbo until official
colonization in 1910. British influence was so extensive (and indigenous peoples’ influence so
limited) that the naming of the land mass stems from the colonizer rather than the colonized.
British reporter Flora Shaw, later the wife of colonial Governor-General Lord Frederick Lugard
(onlinenigeria.com), named Nigeria for the river Niger which flows through the country to its
prosperous Delta region. The indigenous peoples of Nigeria did not necessarily identify as
Nigerian after Ms. Shaw christened it—for the most part, the peoples defined themselves by the
cultural groups with whom they resided. The Nigerians divided their cultural groups into
“Empires” (Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba), which they then divided further into kingdoms (Ohadike 24).
Over time the inhabitants of the territory began to associate themselves with the British-imposed
identity of “Nigerian,” unifying under one flag and under one name in 1960.
The Igbo of Nigeria have long been a patriarchal people. Individual wealth and prestige
usually comes from palm wine and palm oil, which are resources controlled by the male
population. Palm kernel and other crops that earn far less money are considered women’s crops
(Van Allen 168). The smaller income provides less prestige in a community that awards respect
to those with substantial incomes or age and wisdom, thus this economic division helps to
reinforce the patriarchal system. Before contact with British colonists, men performed all long-
distance/high-profit trading while women performed only local and regional trading. The
community granted titles and prestige to those they deemed worthy, though they awarded these
privileges primarily to men with wealth, great oratorical skills, and significant standing in the
community (usually due to community involvement and service). While women did take an
active part in village assemblies, most scholars consider their power to be of a “quieter” sort
(Ifeka-Moller 317). Igbo customs rarely awarded public political power to women (317). High-

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powered males led the discussions at village meetings and invariably controlled all major
decisions that would affect the community as a whole. “Meetings,” or mikiri (Van Allen 166),
provided a separate political sphere for women alone. These women-only meetings took place in
the marketplace, and any woman could participate in the discussions and decisions of these
meetings. In a mikiri
, women could decide to take action against an abusive husband on behalf of a woman, they
could settle economic disputes on marketplace trade, or they could reprimand a troublesome
woman for her behavior (165).
As the social conventions of their community limited female power to the mikiri, Igbo
women of pre-colonial Nigeria had to exert influence indirectly rather than in all-village
meetings as males did. Igbo societies were well established patriarchal communities long before
colonization. The Igbo community placed women on a lower social position than men, but they
did have limited decision-making power in the marketplace (165). A family was physically and
financially responsible for a woman until marriage, 2 at which time the family passed that
responsibility to the new husband. Upon his death, the woman’s in-laws returned her to a birth
brother, where she became his responsibility (Amadiume 70). As the community did not believe
women were true individuals, it is hard to imagine that women were free to negotiate the
political culture of their community without the guidance of a husband. Cultural conventions in
the nineteenth century labeled Igbo women as the inferior sex in this society. They controlled
neither wealth nor power and were forced to observe cleanliness taboos and religious restrictions
while men were exempted from most of these limiting rules.
Despite these restrictions, Igbo women held significant power over hearth and home and
had a quieter influence in political life. According to Van Allen, “As individuals, they
participated in village meetings with men […]. Their real political power was based on the
solidarity of women, as expressed in their own political institutions[…]; their market networks,
their kinship groups, and their right to use strikes, boycotts and force to effect their decisions”
(Van Allen 168). As Van Allen continues to explain, the roles of Igbo women were not based in

2
A family’s responsibility for its daughters/wives was not defined as actual ownership, as in the histories of many
western societies. However, Igbo communities placed a monetary value on the female’s place in her household. A
prospective husband had to reward the family monetarily for the bride’s loss. Likewise, if a husband was
dissatisfied with his wife, he had every right to return her to her family (Amadiume, Male Daughters, p 70).

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specialized governing groups; neither did males of the community 3 validate or legitimize
women’s power (166). Wealth, age, and persuasive speaking ability determined the level of a
woman’s influence, but these traits also determined male power. The main difference here is
that women’s power usually pertained to the domestic sphere or to women’s meetings (which
controlled the women’s work in the marketplace), while men could exercise power over the
community as a whole in public assembly (where major village decisions would take place).
While there were no official rules forbidding a woman’s power in public assembly during this
pre-colonial time, societal practices and beliefs ensured that women remained secondary to men
in wealth (173). As a result, there are few documented cases of women in power in the public
sphere of Igbo life.
Women used mikiri as both economic/political councils and women’s support groups. It
was here that a woman could make a complaint against her husband. Mikiri women would
support a local woman if they believed in her cause. Through the process of “sitting on a man,” 4
women could collectively shame a man into treating his wife in a different manner or into
making restitution for wrong doing. The process of sitting on a man usually consisted of beating
his house with sticks and singing rude, annoying songs through several nights and days,
attracting attention to his offences and generally embarrassing him into capitulation (176).
Women from many communities could rally to participate in a sitting. This collective of women
could organize by local group or across greater distances with amazing results and is still in use
in many Igbo communities (177). Women often called meetings to settle issues concerning
spousal abuse, refusal to let a wife sell her wares at market, or a philandering husband. During
colonial rule, women used the mikiri market network to organize across several communities and
“sit on” the British colonists whose policies displeased them (175). The non-violent yet raucous
strategies employed against the offending man (or organization of men) had a high rate of
success: as a collective, women could generate enough power to achieve their own ends.

Colonial (1900-1960)

3
As an organized state legislature did not exist at this time, females could only appeal to males of each community
as the highest governing power (Van Allen 166).
4
Van Allen describes “sitting on a man” as an organized protest. Women in the community would literally harass a
man by gathering in his compound at night to dance and sing “scurrilous songs,” pound on his hut with pestles, or
“roughing up” the offending male in order to extract an apology or force unacceptable behavior to cease (Van Allen
170).

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The British officially declared Nigeria a colony in 1900, though they did not establish
permanent physical colonies and a British political system until 1910. The colonizers who
settled Nigeria were British military families with Victorian values. Nigerian scholars and the
descendents of the colonized often accuse British colonizers of misunderstanding and
misinterpreting the distribution of power and systems of government within Igbo communities in
the early twentieth century. The colonists superimposed a form of representative British
government over the systems already in place, the mikiri and village meetings I previously
mentioned. They created public figureheads from young, malleable men in the Igbo community
or coerced established leaders into becoming paid liaisons between the British colonizers and
Igbo villagers. The British gave these men the title of “Warrant Chief” in exchange for their
alliance with British District Officers. These men were the only link between colonizers and
colonized (171). The British colonizers gave authority to these Warrant Chiefs, who then
supplanted the wise men and women (known as Big Men and Big Women) of their villages. The
indigenous Igbo people did not like or respect these representatives because the new chiefs had
not earned power through traditional means. According to Van Allen, “It was a violation of Igbo
concepts to have one man represent the village […] and more of a violation that he should give
orders to everyone else. […] In some places Warrant Chiefs were lineage heads or wealthy men
who were already leaders in the village. But in many places they were simply opportunistic
young men” (172). The Igbo viewed the Warrant Chiefs as British agents at best, traitors to their
people at worst. By circumventing the system and planting men who had not earned the right to
leadership in powerful roles, the British District Officers alienated an already hostile, colonized
group and disrupted their normal process of government. In many cases, they also placed a
series of greedy, abusive young men in positions of power and allowed them to collect taxes or
violate customs as they wished.
Although men also suffered economic injustices at the hands of the Warrant Chiefs,
women felt a more significant shift in power during the colonial period. Not only did the
Warrant Chiefs sexually violate or forcibly marry these unwilling women, but these same chiefs
taxed or stole from the women, whose means of producing a personal or household income was
already limited by the sexual division of saleable goods (172). The women’s plight was further
aggravated by the staunchly Victorian attitude of the British colonists toward the female sex and
the subsequent refusal to intervene in women’s matters. Victorian ideas of gender roles labeled

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women as lesser creatures, incapable of societal movement without the help of a male family
member. The colonists thought Igbo females beneath their notice and disregarded the economic
activities that were wholly controlled by the women’s mikiri network. The result of the British
tendency to overlook Igbo women was a series of revolts and protests designed to remind the
colonizers, however abruptly, of the presence of powerful women in Igbo communities. These
revolts are commonly known as the “Women’s Wars.”
The “Women’s Wars” began due to the lack of knowledge of Igbo customs of taxation
and a disregard for the agency of women in society (Van Allen 166). The ill-informed colonists
did not account for women’s voices in the matter of taxation, nor did they consider mobilization
of these women a possibility. The women massed across many villages to create a crowd of
hundreds, then proceeded to take on the British base of operations in the nearest town. They
would beat against the building, sing lewd or rude songs, and generally make themselves a
nuisance until the annoyed and confounded British officers conceded to some of the women’s
demands. These protests were simply an expanded form of “sitting on a man,” and were the only
way for the women to force the British to listen to their appeals. They could not turn to the new
government because it did not recognize female agency—only a male could protest, and the
British usually disregarded their protests as well. While these large, “irrational” female
demonstrations helped to achieve some of the women’s goals (such as the assurance that Warrant
Chiefs would not levy a new tax on women’s goods), the British brushed aside the protests as an
anomaly and did not attribute the uprising to the mikiri network. The British colonizers held to
this steadfast belief in female insignificance until Nigeria declared independence in 1960, never
delving deeply into the process that lead to the women’s massive organization across great
distances or their unified approach to “sitting on” the British authorities. Over the past forty
years, scholars have retroactively gathered information on the customs and practices that gave
the women jurisdiction (in the Igbo community) to protest on such a large scale. 5
By 1933 the newly-created British offices of the Native Administration effectively
replaced most of the functions of the village assembly (177). The colonizers expanded the roles
of Warrant Chiefs. While the administration never officially restricted women from work in the
British-led administration, they unofficially barred them from participating in the activities there.

5
The mikiri system granted women the power to organize and protest. Women’s meetings were the center of
women’s organized power in Igbo culture (Van Allen 168).

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The colonizers’ views of the Igbo, filtered through the lens of staunch Victorian values, became
more fixed as women disappeared from public life altogether.

Postcolonial (1960-Present)
Although many Nigerians still think of Nigeria as a series of Empires, it has become a
united nation (nigeriaembassyusa.org). Since it gained its independence in 1960, Nigeria has
become a power both economically and politically, aiming to modernize and become a fully
autonomous world power. Western Nigeria is now on the economic and political map due
mostly to the large deposits of oil found in the Delta area in 1956. As a result, Nigeria is now the
eleventh largest exporter of crude oil in the world (MBendi.co.za). This discovery paved the
economic path for a series of governmental changes and constitutional reforms. Nigeria
instituted these reforms to reorganize the economic and political structure of the country to suit
its emerging status as a world power in fossil fuel and to more closely align its governmental
procedures with western world powers (nigeriaembassyusa.org). This reorganization has also
altered the systems of thought that were prevalent in both pre-colonial and colonial Nigeria, a
change that is not necessarily welcome in indigenous communities opposed to change. Nigerian
resistance to any idea perceived as neo-imperialist creates a theoretical battlefield. Western
feminisms in particular have come under fire because they were created by and for western
women. These feminisms both influence and clash with the indigenous ideas of the Igbo women
of Nigeria, as Onwueme demonstrates in her three plays.

Onwueme and the Prodigal Daughters:


I have focused my study on Tess Onwueme’s trio of plays consisting of The Broken
Calabash, Parables for A Season, and The Reign of Wazobia. Though only two of the plays
share character and continuous plot, each piece contains similar subject matter and a similar
conflict—this conflict is between western education and a conventional society’s expectations of
an Igbo woman. Scholarship on Nigerian feminisms, Postcolonial studies, gender identities in
Africa, and Igbo traditions in Eastern Nigeria informs my analysis. Each chapter lays out the
clash between women, postcolonial thought, education, and cultural conventions. All three of
the plays open with a short summary of the play, continues with an identification of the main
source of conflict in the piece, and explores that conflict. The pieces portray characters with

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conflicting opinions and objectives that emerge as a result of the past oppressive forces of
colonization and new, postcolonial threats of neo-imperialism. More particularly they addresses
the effects of these events on young women in Igbo societies rooted in conventions that are a
result of the merging of pre-colonial and colonial traditions. Their status as females educated in
western institutions will be a central theme for analysis.
I must first clarify the idea of convention within the Igbo community. The common
definition of the term “tradition” does not suit the cultural practices of the Igbo, so I have chosen
to use the word convention in its stead as “convention” does not bring to mind the same timeless
and static position that “tradition” implies. Igbo cultural conventions have been shaped by the
various political influences that the ethnic group has encountered during the colonial wars of the
mid 19th century and since colonization in 1900. British colonists altered the original practices
of the Igbo people in the early twentieth century. As a result, contemporary scholars know little
about these traditions before their alteration. 6 They do state that the rights which belonged to
women in the pre-colonial society were taken away by the British colonizers and the newly-
empowered, often younger, Igbo who the foreigners placed in positions of authority. 7 Those
reshaped conventions were further altered after liberation from Britain in 1960. Now, in the
postcolonial age, conventions from pre-colonial and colonial Igbo society meld to form new
practices. As Nigeria as a whole attempts to modernize and join the world economic and
political arena, it struggles against theories and ideas that are seen as neo-imperialist. The
Broken Calabash, Parables for A Season, and The Reign of Wazobia are representative of the
struggle between the conventional and postcolonial, and illustrate both the great promise and
great danger a western-educated female can pose to a community rooted in past practices.

Introduction to Onwueme’s Trio


As all three of Onwueme’s texts are based in indigenous communities, I feel compelled
to introduce the plays and the topics they address before introducing the theories through which I
have read them. The ideas and customs in this trio of plays are foreign to most western audience
members. An understanding of the conventions portrayed in these works is as necessary as
knowledge of the colonial history is to recognizing the character’s need for subversion and

6
Anthropological study of the Igbo coincided with the colonial wars of the 19th century.
7
Please see the previous comments about Warrant Chiefs on page 8 of this introduction.

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Onwueme’s bid for change in these fictional communities. The texts center on Igbo women who
were raised close to the home, educated by western “outsiders,” and who feel the need to break
the tension between their beliefs from childhood and beliefs from education with radical
methods. However, the type of method and the form the defiance takes differs dramatically from
text to text. Some of the rebellious acts (Ona and Anehe’s actions in Calabash and Parables
respectively) are self-destructive and self-defeating by nature, while others (Wazobia’s
proclamations) are empowering and progressive.
In order to better understand these plays, I have rendered the plots of these plays into
what appears to be a linear storyline, even though this is not how Onwueme originally
constructed these plays. Events are not in a linear order, the overall structure of the plays is
sometimes circular, and each piece incorporates dance sequences and rituals into the fabric of the
story. One should note, however, that as a scholar analyzing works from cultures not my own I
have discovered that there is a distinct danger in attempting to force non-linear play texts into a
western, linear line of thought. This has, perhaps, been my greatest challenge in attempting to
study these three works. I have found that my instinct is to compare these plays against those
from the western tradition. This practice, however natural it may seem, has proved to be
troublesome at best. I must remind myself that Onwueme does not adhere to Ibsen’s style of
realism, and that as a result the storylines are distinctly unrealistic. While not wholly removed
from the western tradition, Onwueme’s works have a flow and story that is unlike anything I
have encountered. It is my constant challenge to analyze them through many lenses, and to
remember that the experience of Onwueme’s women, while similar to my own, is not in fact
mine.

The Broken Calabash


The Broken Calabash is one of Onwueme’s first plays. The original production occurred
in 1984 in Nigeria, as opposed to many of Onwueme’s other works, which were first performed
in America. In this play, we witness a young woman living in the traditional Igbo caste system,
using the Igegbe custom as a tool of resistance against an overbearing father. Igegbe is a practice
in which, if the sole child of a family is female, she must either abstain from marriage or marry a
woman. Anthropologist Ifi Amadiume describes it as a tactic for keeping land and wealth in a
family, as wealth can only be passed from father to son. In order to continue the family line and

11
ensure a second, and male, heir for her father, the sole daughter may choose to do one of two
things: she may conceive a child with the man of her choice, but abstain from marriage, or she
may marry a woman who will then bear her father’s child. If she makes the latter choice is
made, the newborn child (male or female) will become the father’s heir of the estate, duty bound
to then produce heirs of his or her own to carry on the family name (Amadiume 32). The
daughter is not freed from her marriage or from her family after providing such an heir. She
remains in the family home for the rest of her days, forbidden from any action that may
challenge the validity of the new heir’s status (such as marriage).
The female protagonist of this piece is the only child of the village chief, and as such
must abide by the Igegbe practice. Ona may be educated in the western tradition, but she is still
bound by the laws and conventions of her Igbo culture. She therefore obeys her father’s
command that she become an Igegbe, abjuring her lover (who later marries a friend). Shortly
thereafter, Ona reveals that she is pregnant. She uses this pregnancy to gain revenge against her
father and his “old-fashioned” customs, and accuses Cortuma of being the cause of her current
condition (implying that he impregnated her). Her father must commit suicide in order to save
his honor. Ona is left pregnant and fatherless, torn between the two worlds that made her a
contemporary Igbo woman.
Onwueme’s Calabash clearly illustrates the conflict between western influence through
education and the more conventional values of an Igbo village. The final scene of the play
shows Ona running between a family shrine and a Christian altar, set at opposite ends of stage.
Ona is clearly torn by these opposing forces, and spends the entirety of the play attempting to
satisfy both worlds while remaining true to her own goals and desires. The end result, Cortuma’s
death, leaves many of the play’s conflicts unresolved. As a result, the piece serves as a warning
against the dangers of refusing to listen and to compromise. Onwueme does not provide a
solution to the family’s dilemma, but leaves the conflict very much intact.

Parables for A Season


As the most metaphoric play of the trio, Parables for A Season opens with a central male
figure, the King (Obi) of a small, contemporary Igbo community, explaining the reasons behind
his abdication and withdrawal from the community. Obi Ogiso has failed to give the community
a son who could become his heir and the future king. After his abdication, his wives debate what

12
will happen to their position as queens in the community and who the next ruler will be. They
also discuss (somewhat jealously) what will happen if the very pregnant Bia, the youngest wife
of the king, should give birth to a boy. Their hypothesizing quickly unravels into a series of
plots, each woman grasping for power by allying with powerful men or by seeking power
through other means. Anehe allies with a treacherous man, Iyase, and promises to bring him to
power should he name her his queen (thus securing her own position). Bia gives birth to a son,
whom Anehe attempts to kill. Zo leaves the community to return as “Wazobia,” saves Bia’s son,
wins the regency, and thwarts Anehe’s plans for Iyase.
As a patriarchal monarchy, this community denies women full equality. However,
despite lacking the equal status with the men in this community, women are not entirely without
influence and power. Anehe, Bia, and Zo each stands as a representative of the types of power
available to women in this particular Igbo community. A woman may rise to power with a man,
through birth of an heir, and rarely as the elected regent of the community (in Parables, this Igbo
community elects a female regent upon a king’s death). Each path has its potential pitfalls, but
each woman is successful in gaining some power in her own right. Anehe uses her influence on
the Iyase to guarantee a position of authority when he usurps the regency. Bia’s power is
primarily as a mother to the future king. Zo recognizes the power her education has given her,
using the mythological beliefs of her community to inspire awe at her return as the potential
regent Wazobia. Each woman serves as a reminder of a woman’s difficult position as both
influential force and unequal partner in the community in which she lives. Most importantly, Zo
(now Wazobia) uses an established system to gather socially supported power, subverting those
who would use power for nefarious ends and gaining the ability to promote her own agenda. We
watch her rise to power in Onwueme’s last piece of this dramatic trio, The Reign of Wazobia.

The Reign of Wazobia


The Reign of Wazobia expands on some of the issues found in Parables by introducing a
familiar, yet near-mythical heroine at its center. The piece is by far the most biased concerning
women’s issues as they relate to the conventions of the Igbo community in which it is grounded.
Wazobia follows the struggles of a regent queen, formerly Zo of Parables, who has been elected
regent King by her community after the abdication of the previous monarch. Wazobia’s tale
recounts her election to the position of regent and her struggles with both the men and women of

13
her Igbo community. Wazobia fights to implement some of the ideas (attained through western
education) in her community, inciting near-riotous anger in the people of her community.
However, by using her position as an elected monarch and the laws that support her position as
ruler, Wazobia is able to subvert the conventional practices of her community and replace them
with the womanist and feminist practices she has learned while away at school. Wazobia invites
the women of Nigeria to fight for what she believes are basic human rights, not to be denied by
common practice or superstition.

Review of Literature
Most scholars focus primarily on Onwueme’s writing and dramaturgical style with
particular emphasis on the postcolonial and feminist aspects of her work. Omofolabo Ajayi,
Afam Ebeogu, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, and Eugene B. Redmond write about the conflict between
Western thought and Igbo tradition in their own examinations of Onwueme’s works: it is upon
these scholars’ studies that I base my own. Regarding such postcolonial stresses, Omofolabo
Ajayi-Soyinka, a Nigerian-born scholar of women’s studies and gender issues in African
literature (womensstudies.ku.edu), states that there is considerable resistance to traditional
Western feminism in Nigerian societies. In her paper “Who Can Silence Her Drums? An
Analysis of the Plays of Tess Onwueme,” Ajayi suggests that in the 1980s, when these three
plays were written, feminism was “virtually taboo and seen as another form of colonial
imperialism being promoted, this time not by their men but by Western women. For an African
woman to subscribe to feminist ideals was considered an almost treasonable activity” (Ajayi
109). In short, Nigerians viewed feminism as a tool of Western neo-imperialism. Oyěwùmi
Oyèónkệ argues that today non-Western Africanisms are more accepted in Africa, for they are
theories suited to Africa and created by Africans (Oyèónkệ 1). Some western feminisms
concentrate on promoting a strictly female agenda, focusing on female equality or superiority.
African feminisms or “Africanisms” concentrate on equality for man and woman alike and the
promotion of the general state rather than a single sex. Onwueme’s plays negotiate the conflict
between these two differing points of view by presenting feminisms as extreme examples. I
believe that the absence of Africanisms in her text draws attention to their usefulness in these
Nigerian communities, for western feminisms blind Onwueme’s characters to the problems that
the theories’ presence have wrought upon Igbos rooted in older conventions.

14
Nigerians must also address the difficult issue of using Western education as a tool for
negotiating world economics and for developing new political systems in a way that best suits
the country. This education creates a conflict that is prevalent in Onwueme’s trio of plays. We
encounter three women who must work to circumvent two systems, one that actively pushes
them to conform to Igbo social and religious practices, and the other that pushes them toward
receiving an education based on the British model. In Onwueme’s plays we watch these women
struggle to find a middle ground that is comfortable, if not happy.
Africanist Afam Ebeogu’s article “Feminism and the Mediation of the Mythic in Three
Plays by Tess A. Onwueme” explores the struggles and tensions between Black American
feminism, other American feminisms, and Black African feminisms in Onwueme’s works.
Ebeogu states that “Black African feminism, while reflecting a good many of the characteristics
of the European and American varieties, tends to hold an independent posture based on the
notion that the cultural background that gave rise to the subjugation of women in Africa is quite
different” (Ebeogu 98). The cultural background to which Ebeogu refers includes both the pre-
colonial traditions and altered colonial conventions that helped to shape the Igbo nation into what
it is today. Black African feminism stands apart from Western feminisms for a number of
reasons, but one of the most important is certainly due to the colonial influence of the British in
the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ebeogu also explains Onwueme’s ability to
address this conflict in her creative works: “Traditional political and socio-cultural institutions
[…] have built-in mechanisms for subverting their very effectiveness [. The] time has come for
women to identify these traditions and institutional structures and use them to liberate
themselves” (99). Here Ebeogu argues that Onwueme’s female characters are able to identify
the grey areas or loopholes in these conventions and exploit then to their own advantage. This
idea is the crux of each of the three plays I explore: how do Onwueme’s characters exploit
loopholes in the rules that limit them in order to create new opportunities for change or gain?
As an African-feminist, Oyèónkệ Oyěwùmi addresses the issues that are associated with
both Western feminisms and African feminisms in her edited volume African Women and
Feminism: Reflecting on the Politics of Sisterhood. Oyěwùmi and her contributors stress that
homogenization and generalization are equally dangerous tools when used in postcolonial
feminism. Oyěwùmi resists the idea of a common “sisterhood” of oppressed women. She
explains that not all women have the same experience, and therefore do not suffer from the same

15
types of oppression, particularly in disparate nations. Her book encourages the scholar to look at
African communities on an individual basis and to not allow Western mores to cloud their
judgment when studying the social constructs of these societies (Oyèónkệ 5). Though she does
not directly allude to issues in drama, she does spend considerable time talking about the
cosmopolitan nature of Western literature on Africa and its inability to accurately reflect the
desires and opinions of African authors and scholars. The book also provides invaluable
information on attitudes toward such basic institutions as motherhood, marriage, and women’s
development. The contributors present their views in a contemporary, conversational light that
allows the scholar to understand the current trends and moods of African feminisms. This
book’s contributors, like Onwueme or Ajayi, reside in or frequently return to the communities
that they write about: African readers and scholars alike often criticize writers and scholars who
move to Western countries and who do not return to their home lands to reestablish ties to their
places of origin.
Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiongo also resists the idea of categorization and
homogenization, and his article in Fawzia Afzal-Khan’s The Pre-Occupation with Postcolonial
Studies focuses on the dangers that assumptions (based on categories) pose in literary analysis
(Afzal-Khan 120). “One of the inherited traditions of Western education in the last four hundred
years is that of putting things in compartments, resulting in an incapacity to see the links that
bind various categories” (120). Wa Thiongo’s observations suggest significant perspectives for
the student venturing into unfamiliar territory, and his warnings against Western assumptions
serve to inspire caution in the historiographer and critic. As individuals, he stresses, we are
connected to each other through beliefs, language, art, and literature (123). By categorizing, we
invite preconceived generalizations about cultural groups, customs, and values to invade our
interpretation of any piece of literature. While we cannot fully eradicate personal bias from any
literary analysis, we can attempt to recognize and question those biases in order to not allow
them to cloud new studies in unfamiliar territory. Neither can we impose Western ideas on
African art. We must realize the Onwueme writes from the vantage point of an educated Igbo
woman, but may not speak for the Igbo as a whole. The beliefs and values of the Igbo people
differ from village to village, and those beliefs differ from those of other groups in Nigeria.
Onwueme writes of her opinions concerning women and education, but her fictional accounts of
the conflict between Western and Igbo mores must be reviewed with restraint. While her stories

16
are based on the very real conflict between colonial and postcolonial Nigerian ideas, these plays
remain works of fiction representative of only the playwright’s individual experience.
The theories that color Onwueme’s work have led me to identify a very provocative
conflict within Onwueme’s work: the conflict between Western education and conventional
standards in Igbo women. This dramatic trio allows the reader to see the influence of
colonization in each piece and in each character, whether they are rebelling against formerly
colonial institutions or working within their confines. Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins’ text
on postcolonial drama has proven useful in defining postcolonialism and the problems associated
with employing that term with African drama. The term “postcolonial” gives the impression that
the time of colonization is over (Gilbert 2). Nigerians are still feeling the effects of colonization,
and it is these effects that have continued to inspire a fear of new ideas in smaller Nigerian
communities such as Igbo villages. The audience member does not think to question the current
struggle against the ideals and policies that were brought by the colonizers, ideas which cannot
be fully purged from the culture as they have been woven into the fabric of the local politics and
social culture. Neither does the reader take into account that the process of modernization in
Nigeria brings the adaptation and adoption of many new ideas and theories, some of which may
appear neo-imperialist as they are western in origin. Neo-imperialism, one of the most
prominent fears of the antagonists of the three plays, is a term that is often directly aimed at
western scholars and politicians. The contemporary theories and politics that emerge from the
West are created from the Western point of view. By applying distinctly Western opinions to
Africa, scholars threaten an academic imperialism that is suspect to contemporary Africans
(Oyèónkệ 1). The ideas that the protagonists bring to their communities are treated with the
same skepticism that many Nigerians give other western ideas. The characters in Onwueme’s
text encounter their fears of western education and the unspoken threat it carries, and it is these
fears that must be negotiated in order for the community to change.
Gilbert and Tompkins describe postcolonial performance as identifiable by distinct
markers that reflect both the colonizer and the colonized. I have found many of these markers
prevalent in Onwueme’s work. The central female characters respond to the postcolonial state
with “acts that respond to the experience of imperialism,” “acts performed for the continuation
[…] of the community” (12), “acts performed with the awareness of […] post-contact forms”
(11), and “acts that interrogate the hegemony that underlies imperial representation” (11).

17
Onwueme attempts to address each of these acts in her trio of works — the conflict of each piece
centers on acts that are meant to improve the community, but the act itself is often altered by
education received in Western-style schools. The resolution (or attempted resolution) of each of
these conflicts often undermines oppressive colonial and patriarchal systems whose presence
created the conflict in the first place.
Gilbert and Tompkins state that an Aristotelian categorization of theatre is a dangerous
tool that leads to othering and distancing from the material. They encourage a more fluid
definition of terms about theatre and performance, but they most particularly discourage the
scholarly tendency toward generalization of indigenous belief systems. This is reminiscent of
Wa Thiongo’s earlier warnings against homogenization of ideas and cultural conventions. The
scholar must be aware of his impulse to revert to Western ideas instead of the harder task of
coming to terms with the living presence of others’ beliefs—a neo-imperialist act indeed.
Onwueme’s text is aware of the conflict between the foreign beliefs, and her characters often
engage with the very problem that Gilbert, Tompkins, and Wa Thiongo warn against.
By attempting to bring the ideas and opinions acquired through Western education and a
removed view of the Igbo into the community, Onwueme’s heroines are creating a situation that
forces conflicting ideas to the surface: they demand to be addressed. Gilbert and Tompkins
theorize that “Postcolonialism’s agenda, however, is more specifically political: to dismantle the
hegemonic boundaries and the determinants that create unequal relations of power based on
binary oppositions such as ‘us and them,’ ‘first world and third world,’ ‘white and black,’
‘coloniser and colonized’” (3). There is a definite call to beware the pitfalls of both
categorization and homogenization within postcolonial feminist work.
By concentrating on the very specific nature of the community I have chosen to study, I
hope to gain a more nuanced, if irrevocably incomplete, understanding of the source of the
conflict in Onwueme’s plays. Change is inevitable, and these plays serve as a reminder of the
dangers and wonders associated with change. Onwueme provides scenarios that could lead to
disaster for these communities and the individuals involved in this conflict. These scenarios
should inspire conversation about how to circumvent the dangers of these conflicts and to find
the best solution for all.

18
Chapter Breakdown
Introduction: Tess Onwueme, Drama, and Nigerian Feminism
The introduction to this piece contains an outline of the three phases of colonization in
Nigeria, background on Onwueme, summaries of the literature and scholarship on this subject,
and a chapter breakdown.

Chapter 1: The Broken Calabash


Here I will expand my summary of the play before delving into the role of Ona in
subverting the traditions of Igegbe to satisfy her own agenda. I will detail the Igegbe tradition
and its origins within the patriarchal Igbo society and incorporate aspects of Ona’s Western
education and Cortuma’s traditional attitudes to emphasize the conflict of interest that leads to
Cortuma’s eventual suicide. I will explore the topic of Ona’s Western education and views in
relation to Cortuma’s more conventional expectations, and explore the conflict between these
two sets of ideals. Why does tension arise from these two ideals, and why are the two parties so
unable to understand each other’s view? What might Onwueme imply with Cortuma’s death and
Ona’s subversion of the conventions that bind her?

Chapter 2: Parables for A Season


Again, I will start with a summary of the play before moving on to the purpose of
women’s presence in this piece. Onwueme has stated that one interpretation of Parables for A
Season is as an “extended metaphor on the significant place and role of women as universal
pillars for stability in times of socio-political stress and transition” (Onwueme 65). This play
demonstrates the power women have to either stabilize or destabilize this patriarchal 8 society in
which they are supposed to have little power. I will examine the male characters’ use of women
to gain their own ends, and the female characters’ attempts to either gain power or restructure
their communities. I will also examine the relationships formed between women that help to
stabilize an off-balance community and structures that award differing levels of authority to
particular females – an issue that will also be explored in depth in my analysis of Wazobia.

8
Please see earlier discussion on patriarchy on page 4.

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Chapter 3: The Reign of Wazobia
Though this play is considered a sequel to Parables, I intend to focus on Wazobia’s new
identity (rather than Zo’s identity from the previous play) as the source of conflict of the play. I
will to focus primarily on Wazobia’s use of and disregard for the more harmful Igbo traditions
and her work within the system to achieve her own ends. I will also spend time exploring the
particular feminist issues that are prevalent in this play, and Wazobia’s use of traditional Igbo
women’s means to bring change to her community.

Conclusion: Changing Communities and Identity


In the conclusion, I revisit the conflict between the youthful, educated females of Igbo
society and the more conventional mores that limit these women’s actions. How does one
incorporate the ideas that have made other countries contemporary successes while still
respecting the identities and beliefs of the older community? How can one promote change in a
world that is anti-colonial? Most importantly, I will outline paths for future research into
Onwueme’s work. How can women from different parts of the world work together despite or
because of a shared history of colonialism?

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CHAPTER 1
THE BROKEN CALABASH:
THE WOES OF GENERATIONAL MISCOMMUNICATION

Tess Onwueme wrote the The Broken Calabash in the early 1980s, after which The
National Theatre Iganmu in Lagos opened the premier production in 1984 (Onwueme 21). The
show later made its U.S. debut at Wayne State University in Detroit. These two performances
suggest that the piece speaks not only to the Nigerian audiences of its original performance, but
to Western audiences as well. This is unsurprising as Onwueme has spent many years
negotiating the mores of both Western and African feminisms. She has lived and worked in the
United States since the mid 1980s while frequently visiting her home in Delta State, Nigeria, and
her plays are based on childhood memories of her Igbo home. Onwueme’s work negotiates the
value systems of both parts of the world. Africanist Mabel Evwierhoma calls Onwueme’s works
“hybrid” as the dramatist and professor lives in America while writing of Africa (Evwierhoma
4). The Broken Calabash is an excellent example of Onwueme’s process of negotiating Western
and African views. Though its protagonist does not necessarily succeed in these negotiations,
the play does help audiences address the conflict between newer Western values and older Igbo
cultural practices in a contemporary society through a coup d’état organized around the Igegbe
custom (Ebeogu 100).
The Broken Calabash concentrates on the presence of Western educational traditions in
the Nigerian University system and how those traditions alter the life of a young, Igbo woman
living with her non-Western parents. The play focuses on one women’s place within a
community deeply rooted in its customs and her struggle to make choices informed by her own
beliefs (acquired at university) while respecting the cultural practices of her parents. The conflict
of the piece centers on family dynamics in a changing world. What I have found most
interesting about this text is the portrayal of Ona as both grown Western woman and obedient
Igbo child—she is torn between pleasing her parents and pleasing herself, and never seeks a
compromise so that she may do both. Despite the fact that Ona has been exposed to
contemporary philosophies (such as feminisms) and non-traditional trends (such as western
fashion) through university, her education has not equipped Ona to understand or respect her
father’s loyalty to and faith in the traditions he upholds. In turn, she is equally incapable of

21
articulating her beliefs and desires in a manner that will help her father, Cortuma, understand her
desire to be a modern, if Westernized, woman. His hatred of any type of thought that may be
construed as neo-imperialist has left him unwilling to hear to his daughter’s wishes and needs (or
to understand why she feels them). This mutual misunderstanding of priorities and of their
origins leads to the ultimate tragedy: rashly conceived vengeance gone horribly awry. This
breakdown of communication is the direct result of two characters unable to look past their own
philosophies. Such rigidity leads to Cortuma’s untimely death and contributes to the
conversation on the influence of new ideas in areas rooted in cultural convention.
For the sake of clarity, I have imposed a linear structure on The Broken Calabash’s
plotline. Readers should remain aware that Onwueme’s plot is circular and melodic, and that the
events described do not mirror western dramatic realism. Onwueme’s play is infused with ritual
and dance, and the passage of time cannot be measured evenly.
The Broken Calabash opens, as do all three of the plays of this trilogy, with an Igbo
ritual. As African literary scholar Afam Ebeogu explains, the piece begins during the festival of
Ine, a period of ritual cleansing before the new yam festival in this small Igbo village of Isah
(Ebeogu 100). The village’s marriageable women assemble for this ritual cleansing to declare
their maiden state and eligibility for matrimony (100). The town crier joyfully announces the
festival’s commencement and a call to the maidens of the village to assemble in song. As a
festival of purification, Ine is “dominated by verbal and non-verbal satirical practices, during
which all members of the community who have been found morally wanting are brought to
public ridicule” (100). It is at this festival that we first meet Ona, the heroine of our story and
jewel of her father’s eye. Indeed, the literal translation of Ona’s name is Jewel, as noted in
Onwueme’s character list. We see Ona only briefly in this colorful prologue, trailing behind her
parents to watch the beginning of the festivities. The singing maidens beckon Ona to join them
in their song by the river but Cortuma signals her to return to the house. This action denies Ona
the rite of passage that is participation in the Ine festival, and thus symbolically denies her the
status of becoming a marriageable maiden of the village. Cortuma and his wife Oliaku continue
to watch the dancers as Ona obediently, if reluctantly, returns to their house. While we do not
understand the dynamics behind Cortuma’s refusal at this point in the play, there is something
unnerving about the Ona’s inability to join her fellow maidens in song: we understand that
Cortuma wants Ona distanced from the rest of the community. Considering the purpose of the

22
Ine festival, Cortuma’s actions imply that Ona is not an average woman and therefore she will
marry this year, despite being of age and from a prominent family. 1 This raises one very
important question: Why is Ona different?
From this immersion in the Igbo culture the play launches into the first movement of the
piece, a poignant mixture of Western and indigenous influence. We watch as Ona, forbidden
from participating in the Ine festival with other marriageable maidens, sings along with
American blues music to a cassette recording of a female singer (Onwueme 24). Her father’s
living room is filled with well made but stodgy “headmaster furniture,” a crucifix, and a
traditional Igbo family shrine (24). Each item is an indication of both the family’s prominent
social status and of their mixed beliefs—the heavy furniture, though Western in style, is
expensive; the crucifix and shrine are placed opposite one another in symbolic display of the
tension between the two cultures. As the Ine celebration takes place outside, Ona is inside
listening to an art form that is distinctly Western in style. The festive sounds outside the house
clash with the soulful pain of the singer’s and Ona’s voices, reinforcing the Western/Igbo
contrast and setting the tone for the conflict that will carry us through the rest of the play.
Soon Ugo, Ona’s best friend from university, enters the scene. She fills the stage with
adopted American slang and discussions of the luxuries of a contemporary and youthful lifestyle
that is reminiscent of teenage girls all over the world. This lively discussion of boys and nights
out dramatically contrasts to the mournful lyrics Ona was belting just moments before. During
the conversation Ona reveals that she is in love with her boyfriend, Diaku, and that she frets over
his loyalty. She explains to Ugo, with little success, that she has had recurring, ominous dreams
that intensify this fear. Ugo brushes Ona’s fears aside, telling her that she has nothing to fear and
that Ona’s dreams of hermaphroditic snails mean nothing. Ona thanks Ugo for this input as she
leaves the room, but on her way out the door Ugo is mocked by the dancers of the Ine festival.
She does not understand that these dancers are questioning her morals for she is not a citizen of
Isah—Ona must explain that these are her people. The girls share a laugh at the amusing antics
of the Isah dancers, and the girls part ways as the scene ends.
The second movement explains the Idgebe custom, though it does not fully reveal Ona’s
place in the custom or why she is considered Idgebe. Cortuma’s sister, Agador, mentions that
Ona is not only an only child of marriageable age, but expected to adhere to the Idgebe custom

1
The play later reveals that Cortuma is a local chief and very wealthy (Onwueme 29).

23
because she is an only child who is female. The family members continue to allude to the Idgebe
practice in metaphor, but these allusions are subtle—we must trust that this custom somehow
means that Ona cannot marry. Cortuma and Agador also discuss possible loss of land and
property at Cortuma’s death if he passes without a male heir. These two discussions are linked
by the mention of Ona. Something about Ona’s birth has put her family in a risky financial
situation. Ona immediately understands these veiled allusions and runs from the scene in horror,
signaling that the fate of an Idgebe is not an enviable one. She clearly finds this conversation
distasteful and distressing and leaves the room before the discussion is concluded. Cortuma
clearly wants Ona to participate in this ancient custom, but he seems perturbed by Agador’s
mention of Idgebe while Ona is in the room. In a roundabout fashion, Cortuma confirms that he
intends for his daughter to become an Idgebe, but refrains from discussing the matter any further.
It is clear that Ona’s opinion on the matter will not factor into his decision.
After he sets aside the subject of Idgebe, Cortuma reveals his inherent distrust of the
trappings of Christianity and “modern” ideas (such as women’s grooming or Western-style
education). Cortuma’s abhorrence of Ona’s religious and social practices remains clear from this
point on in the piece. He forbids her to attend confession, to straighten her hair, or to go out with
Ugo. Cortuma displays contempt for the rituals of the church, asserting that the traditions of the
Igbo are just as valuable. When Ona protests that she will not be able to receive communion,
Cortuma tells her: “Don’t let it bother you. I brew the best palm wine in Isah, and we can buy
biscuits, too […] White man’s communion? (spits with disgust)” (Onwueme 36). The
representative nature of communion means nothing to Cortuma, but he will give his daughter
bread and wine if it will allow him to keep her home from church. Though Cortuma once
converted to Christianity in the hopes that a Christian God would allow his wife to conceive
(36), it is obvious that his faith in that church has long since lapsed and that he no longer believes
that his daughter’s faith in a Christian god will benefit his daughter.
Movement three expands on Ona’s relationship with Diaku, which Ona and Ugo briefly
discuss in the first movement. We witness Cortuma’s unusual suspicion of Diaku’s and Ona’s
actions, his distrust of the Christian religion they study, and his obsessive desire to protect his
daughter’s body. When the scene opens, Cortuma is chaperoning Diaku and Ona during “bible
study” in his living room, obviously unable to trust the two alone. Diaku and Ona use a biblical
style of verse to establish when Diaku will steal into Ona’s bed, and use the other advantages of

24
their education (rhetoric and French language skills) to confuse Cortuma so he does not
understand their plans. While Cortuma doesn’t understand the message, he certainly knows that
that romance is afoot. This blatant use of the skills provided by a Western education affirms
Cortuma’s distrust of that institution. He is infuriated by his inability to decipher Ona and
Diaku’s private code and his anger is intensified by catching Ona and Diaku in a passionate kiss.
Diaku is asked to leave the house for the night and Cortuma asks Ona to promise not to suck
another man’s tongue in the future (45). He forces Ona to rinse her mouth and sends her to bed.
Movement four reveals the extent of Cortuma’s obsession with Ona. It begins with Ona
stealthily walking through the darkened house at midnight to greet Diaku at the door. Ona leads
Diaku to her bedchamber where the couple can be together undisturbed. Diaku worries that they
will meet Ona’s father, but Ona assures Diaku that Cortuma is “fast asleep…in his own
bedroom” (46). Once ensconced within Ona’s bedroom, Diaku informs Ona that he intends to
put her “in the family way” (46) to silence Cortuma’s objections to their relationship and
proclaims his love for her. A scream from Cortuma halts the couple’s fondling. Ona’s father
emerges from his bedroom in a half-dreaming, half-waking state and lurches toward Ona’s
bedroom muttering words that reveal his true feelings for Ona. He cries:
Ona! Come. I am your father…I will confirm you—you with my own oil. Life-giving
juice to anoint you. I, who gave you life. I can give you the cream and seed of life. Ona!
Stop! Don’t go. Don’t do it, Do you doubt my power? ‘Dominus vomitus.’ Ona! Ona!
My Jewel. (46)
While we can understand Cortuma’s worry for his daughter’s virtue, his half-conscious
babblings are distinctly sexual in nature. Cortuma’s actions confirm that his love for his
daughter is not purely paternal. His dream state mutters speak of “the cream and seed of life”
and “life-giving juice,” statements that are disturbing to the spectator. The Igbo do not condone
incest, and such raving statements seem designed to shock the audience (Ebeogu 100). Diaku,
who hid under Ona’s bed upon Cortuma’s entrance, recoils from his raving. While embarrassed
and pensive, Ona is not surprised by her father’s outburst, but rather resigned. Oliaku appears in
the doorway and leads Cortuma away from Ona’s room. She is not surprised by Cortuma’s
outburst either, which indicates that this nocturnal behavior may be common in Cortuma’s
household. Nevertheless, Cortuma’s appearance in Ona’s bedroom successfully interrupts
Diaku’s amorous plans. He flees the house with hardly a word to his girlfriend.

25
Movement five focuses on Diaku’s marriage proposal to Ona and the ceremony that
accompanies a marriage between two villages. Earlier Diaku seemed hesitant toward marriage;
here he seems to wholeheartedly support it. Onwueme never explains this change in attitude
toward marriage, though the audience may infer that this newfound enthusiasm may spring from
a desire to remove Ona from her father’s obsessive attentions. Nevertheless, Diaku’s visit is
official as he is supported by his father and others from his village. The proposal of marriage to
Ona uses both Igbo and Western marriage customs, neatly mirroring Ona and Diaku’s positions
as children of both worlds. The party brings the traditional ceremonial items used for an Igbo
proposal: “a calabash of palm wine, a bottle of gin, and a head of tobacco sealed” (47). We also
discover that Diaku has given Ona an engagement ring, which is not a traditional Igbo marriage
custom. Regardless of these preparations, Cortuma rejects the proposal and disregards the
careful preparations Diaku’s party has made in the name of tradition—traditions that Cortuma
held so dear before. Until now, all the traditions of the Igbo were the epitome of what is good in
Cortuma’s eye. Now, however, Diaku’s appeal to Cortuma’s obsession with tradition is an
insult. Cortuma reacts poorly, but it is Agador who finally screams the word Idgebe. “Don’t you
know that Ona is an Idegbe and that she cannot marry outside this family” she shouts at the
marriage party (50). Though the custom is still not fully explained to spectators, Ona clearly
understands the fate of an Idegbe and recoils in horror before fleeing the room in tears. Diaku
and his father are equally shocked by this turn of events; though the practice of Idgebe is well
known in Igbo society most families do not practice it, even if they are high ranking. Most
families opt instead to allow their daughter to choose her own mate.
Cortuma is enraged by Diaku’s proposal and rails against Diaku and his father, who had
not considered that Cortuma’s family would practice Idgebe. In his rage, Cortuma smashes the
calabash of palm wine that has been offered as part of the marriage negotiations between the
tribes, shocking all in the room. The calabash of wine is both a symbol of prosperity and
wisdom as palm wine is one of the staple goods that men sell to support the Igbo economy (Van
Allen 172), and the calabash itself is supposed to be a vessel of wisdom and good fortune
(Ebeogu 115). By offering a calabash of palm wine as part of a traditional marriage proposal
ceremony, Diaku has followed the traditions of the Igbo. The wine is meant as a blessing for the
marriage, and defiling that calabash of wine not only insults the marriage, but the bearers of the
gift. Cortuma’s actions are more than poor manners—the broken calabash is a bad omen. As

26
Mabel Evweirhoma states, “according to Chidi Amuta this calabash is the play’s crucial symbol
as it reflects the seeking of Ona’s hand in marriage by Diaku’s village. In his words the
‘breaking of the calabash reveals […] shattered aspiration and stability as well as the tradition
which Cortuma strives so hard to defend.’” By smashing the calabash, Cortuma provokes
comments of censure from the town crier and the dancers who represent members of the
community. Cortuma has shown disrespect for the very traditions that he expects Ona to follow;
he has also angered the neighboring community and the gods by breaking the ceremonial
calabash of palm wine.
In movement six, we finally receive a complete explanation of the reasons behind the
rejection of the marriage proposal and Cortuma’s adherence to the Idgebe custom. At long last,
Cortuma confirms Ona’s fate himself. “What this simply means is that you, my Ona, cannot
marry outside this my family. You are an Igegbe! […] Yes, you can neither marry nor bear
children for any other man” (54). This awkward phrasing gives me pause because it reinforces
Cortuma’s implied inappropriate love for his only child—“any other man” implies that Ona will
bear children for her father and her father alone. Thankfully, Ona’s mother, Oliaku, clarifies the
duty with a more formal definition, stating that Ona has the “choice to bear children for your
father alone or marry a wife who can help bear children to multiply the stock” (55). Ona’s
response is drastically different from her former reaction (flight), and her ire is evident in her
angry, appalled statements. Ona calls Idgebe “an obsolete tradition,” and wishes that this
practice be “blown into oblivion by the storm heralding the new season” (56), implying that this
is an outdated practice that should be replaced by more contemporary practices of engagement
and marriage. Though her response to the proposed female marriage is understandable
considering her attachment to Diaku, it also presents a rather significant dilemma. Ona seems
unbothered by the fact that her refusal to become an Idegbe complicates matters for her parents,
nor does she ask for more information on the custom. She is unwilling to compromise with her
parents to solve her dilemma and does not stop to ask about her duties once a child is born. Her
grief over the loss of Diaku, and indeed, the loss of an immediate marriage drives Ona into a
state of rage that blinds her from exploring the issue as an educated female. Instead, she storms
from the room and threatens the family with utter destruction.
By movement seven, Ona’s world has spun out of control. The scene begins with Ona
frantically clawing at her chest until a letter from Diaku arrives with the news that he and Ugo

27
(Ona’s best friend, last seen in movement two) have wed. Ona’s depression evaporates and
becomes wild hysteria. She laments the loss of Diaku and Ugo, and decides that she will
implicate her father in some sort of crime to exact revenge. The scene immediately shifts and we
see Ona, apparently ill and mute, tended by her parents. They discover the cause of her illness:
Ona is pregnant. When asked who the father of her child is, Ona does not name a man but replies
that it is Cortuma’s fault that she is in this condition. “You, my father, are the cause,” she states
for all to hear (Onwueme 59). The implication that Cortuma is the father of Ona’s child is too
much to bear and he pleads with his daughter to retract her statement. Ona refuses to do so.
Cortuma rushes from the room in shame, but his fate does not remain a mystery for long. The
town crier delivers a short epilogue in which we learn that Cortuma has taken his own life. By
doing so, he has ensured that he will not be buried and that his body will be placed in the “bad
bush” (62). According to Igbo scholar Chima Korieh, the bad bush, a term synonymous with
“evil forest,” is the place where abominations (or things unnatural to the Igboman) dwell. It is
often a secluded patch of wilderness that is a distance away from the community
(www.ub.uib.no). Being placed in the bad bush confirms the unacceptable nature of Cortuma’s
suicide and his subsequent removal from communal memory. Ona has certainly had her revenge
on her father, but seems confused by her role as his betrayer. The lights fade as Ona rushes from
shrine to crucifix and back again while the crier’s words echo on stage.

Miscommunication in Isah
The main source of conflict in this piece is the clash between Ona’s attitude toward the
customs of her village and her father’s insistence that these conventions be observed. Both Ona
and Cortuma refuse to seek a way to meld the older conventions with Ona’s new ideals. Ona
loathes the very idea of the Igegbe custom and her restricted lifestyle. Cortuma insists that this
custom be observed, but this eventually leads to Ona’s outright rebellion against her parents.
Cortuma’s distrust of any change that is the direct result of colonization has contributed to Ona’s
attitude, for as a modern Nigerian woman she places her faith in institutions that Cortuma does
not want to understand. Because Ona trusts her Christian faith and her school education, she
distrusts Cortuma’s motives, which are inspired by his faith in Igbo traditions. Cortuma’s
distrust of his daughter, coupled with his obsessive love for her, leads to a breech in the line of
communication between father and child. Ona cannot explain her Western ideals to her father,

28
for he is opposed to all things Western. Cortuma cannot explain his desire to remain faithful to
the older customs of the Igbo because Ona has been “converted” to Western thought. He
believes these customs are outdated tools of subjugation. As modern woman and traditional
man, Ona and Cortuma seem fated to be at cross purposes: each speaks at the other, but is rarely
heard. Neither party seeks a compromise.
While Onwueme does not explain the Idgebe practice to spectators for the first half of the
play, Ona is clearly aware of the custom and its demands. Her negative attitude to toward the
custom is clear throughout the piece. She runs from the room each time someone alludes to the
practice, as though her absence will make the possibility of becoming an Idegbe go away.
However, it is clear that Ona knows that something is wrong—she has had a series of prophetic
dreams that foreshadow her participation in Idegbe and more than one family member mentions
the practice in passing. Ona’s foreboding dream about snails is the first subconscious signal that
something is wrong. Ona states, “My mother also tells me that snails are evil—Uke. Snail
signifies sacrifice” (Onwueme 29). When this disturbing dream fails to impress Ugo with Ona’s
sense of foreboding, she looks the word up in her zoological dictionary. “Snail, of the mollusk
family with shell, soft body, no limbs. Hermaphrodite […] You see the meaning,” states Ona,
who looks expectantly at Ugo for confirmation of the ill omen (Onwueme 30). Ona is the snail,
for she must assume the role of the hermaphrodite—both male and female—in order to save her
family. As a more Westernized woman, Ugo does not believe in the traditional ill omens of the
Igbo, and passes off the dream as just that—a dream. However, the definitions of the symbolic
snail, one from indigenous belief and the other from University education, each reinforce Ona’s
feelings of trepidation. Each is symbolic of Ona’s upcoming status as an Idgebe, for Ona will be
used to promote the family line for another generation. In the very next scene, Ona is again
confronted with Igegbe. Adagor, Ona’s paternal aunt, cries “Nnanyi, now the hen is cackling, it
is time to keep it to roost, so it doesn’t drop the eggs on stone. Will Ona get her wife this
holiday? And at this time of Ine, girls abound…” (29) The implication of this phrase is that
Cortuma had best settle the matter of Ona’s marriage quickly so that his financial wealth is not
taken away from him. Adagor obviously thinks this is the time to do so, as all of the
marriageable women in Isah are being presented at the festival. Ona does not respond kindly to
the suggestion as she disengages herself from her aunt, face aghast, and retreats into the house
without waiting for confirmation of the statement from her father, who is also present (32).

29
There are no more allusions to the custom until Ona’s disastrous betrothal ceremony, but the
disquiet surrounding Ona’s relationship with Diaku and her father does not dissipate.
Despite past references to the custom, Ona seems genuinely surprised (and enraged) by
the decision that she must become an Igegbe. She views the practice as barbaric, outdated, and
sexist. The technical definition of Idegbe is never fully discussed in Onwueme’s play, but Mabel
Evwierhoma has described in her work. The custom involves the offspring of a female only
child. Ona must either conceive a child out of wedlock and present it as her father’s son, 2 or
marry a woman who will then bear the child of the daughter’s father (Evwierhoma 128). Either
way, the birth of a male child will assure the lineage of the father’s house and any land will pass
to his grandchild/son as it could not have been passed to a daughter (Banham 84).
Ona’s reaction to her father’s revelation of her fate is immediate and frightening in its
strength. “I see,” she cries, “You people have a very ambitious murder plan. You will not only
slaughter me on the altar of your decadent tradition, but would also want another female head. I
say to hell with your tradition. Homestead! Norm! All!” (Onwueme 54). This statement,
shouted with a force and temper that Ona has not displayed before, is indicative of her opinion of
the custom (as well as her own plight). Ona views the traditions of her parents as separate from
her own, and therefore not traditions that she should be bound by. She views Idgebe as a relic,
an outmoded custom to be studied or examined, not one to be practiced, 3 and her rage is
directed as much at the native, disused custom as at her parent’s choice to practice this custom.
She rails against her lack of choice and her inability to fight against her family’s wishes and
Isah’s support of their decision. Ona’s rage is compounded by the fact that her fiancé been cast
from the house and denied the rites of a formal engagement, thus eliminating the possibility of
marriage between Diaku and Ona. The Idgebe custom ties Ona to her father’s house for the
foreseeable future. 4 This does not suit Ona, whose Western education has trained her to think
that she has the right to choose the mate of her choice. As Africanist Afam Ebeogu states, “Even
if a girl decides not to marry but remain in her father’s household and raise children, as some
modern self-reliant women are doing today, it should be her own choice and not the imposition
of a ‘decadent tradition’” (Ebeogu 102). Ona abhors the fact that her happiness is to be

2
This is a common practice not associated with incest. The process is referred to as legal adultery (Evwierhoma
128).
3
It should be noted that Idgebe is still practiced in some Igbo communities today (Amadiume 35.)
4
According to Amadiume, after the Idgebe has fulfilled her duty, she is free to move from the house and marry,
though her son must remain in the house as heir (37).

30
sacrificed for the good of the family without being given the choice to make that decision
herself. Her self-sacrifice is forced upon her, which is not self-sacrifice at all.
Cortuma’s distrust of any action associated with colonization is a foil to Ona’s dislike of
the traditions of her indigenous community. He distrusts the university, Ona’s school friends,
and the Christian faith in which she believes. His suspicion pushes Ona away from Cortuma, for
he is unwilling to entertain any explanation Ona may give for liking the ideas that contradict
Cortuma’s belief system. His objections to the trappings of colonization do not seem to be
directed at the system itself, but rather on the effects the system has on his daughter’s lifestyle
and choices. Cortuma objects to Ona’s adopted religion, Christianity. 5 He spits with disgust at
the very mention of Christianity, though he is a former convert as well, and rails against the
priests “who wear long gowns like women” and who “bog you down with weights of rules and
irrelevant doctrines” (36). Here Cortuma expresses a philosophy that mirrors many colonial
Western perceptions of African cultures—Cortuma believes this alien religious culture is
effeminate and superfluous. (37) The patriarchal Igbo society awards prestige and respect to
males who prove their manhood in society, not to effeminate priests. Cortuma does not think
highly of the Christian establishment and particularly resents the time that Ona gives to her
religion, time that would normally be spent at home. Though the audience is privy to
conversations that reveal Ona is not so much devout as desperate to get away from home,
Cortuma believes his daughter’s faith and devotion are genuine—he is as perplexed by his
daughter’s homage to her religion as Ona is perplexed by his more traditional beliefs.
This resentment of the Ona’s religion is also visible in Cortuma’s distrust of Diaku and
his bible study with Ona. Cortuma has no reason to trust Diaku—Diaku distracts Ona from her
obligations to her family. However, Cortuma’s resentment intensifies when he witnesses
Diaku’s ability to communicate with Ona in a biblical code that he cannot decipher. Diaku and
Ona use biblical speech as a way of communicating messages to each other about future
meetings, turning the language of the King James Bible into clandestine rendezvous instructions.
Diaku states that “The Lord shall come like a thief in the middle of the night” (Onwueme 44).
This quote from New Testament book of Thessalonians indicates that Diaku will call on Ona in
the middle of the night. This simple yet innuendo laden form of speech naturally arouses

5
As the Christian religion Ona believes in includes catechism, priests, confession, and communion, Ona’s beliefs
could be Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant. Onwueme never stipulates which Christian belief system Ona
subscribes to.

31
Cortuma’s suspicions. “So long as he doesn’t steal what belongs to me,” Cortuma cries in
response. “You Christians and your Lord who forbids stealing and yet calls himself a thief.
That’s how he taught you to steal people’s daughter’s virtues” (44). Cortuma is not fooled by
this spiritual speech, and he disagrees with the principles that Christianity has brought to his
village—he views the church as a source of corruption and a danger to his family, and Diaku as
representative of this corruption.
Cortuma’s distrust also extends to Ona’s modern apparel and appearance. While this may
be normal parental dislike of contemporary hair and clothing styles, Cortuma’s dislike of Ona’s
straightened hair and Ugo’s overtly-sexual clothing contribute to Cortuma’s alienation of his
daughter. Cortuma seems confused by Ona’s desire to straighten her hair, stating that while he
likes modernization, he does not like it “when you fry your hair to look like a rat that has fallen
into oil. The beauty of plaited hair is indisputable to any man with nerves and veins inside him”
(Onwueme 35). I find it odd that Cortuma encourages beautification of any kind, whether it be
traditionally Igbo or Western. As Idgebe, Ona does not need to attract the attention of a mate—
her fate is already sealed, whether she attracts a man or not. Likewise, Ona’s appearance makes
no difference at all if she marries a female to bear an heir for Cortuma as such a match is not
made out of love. Cortuma’s objections to Ona’s attire likely stem from the company she keeps,
specifically her schoolmate Ugo. He unceremoniously chases Ugo from the house because she
wears contemporary, sexual clothing—and because her sense of style influence Ona’s. He
shouts at Ugo, “But you, how do you want to enter the church with your hair open, your back
bare, and your lips as red as ulcer? […] You girls of nowadays must be taught to dress properly”
(Onwueme 46). This public censure of Ugo’s clothing causes a rift between Ugo and Ona which
Cortuma appreciates--he was not fond of Ugo or the changes he saw in Ona as a result of their
friendship (42). Cortuma uses his prejudice against contemporary appearance to chase Ugo from
his home and isolate Ona further from the influences which turn her from tradition. His
obsession with doing things as they have always been done separates his daughter from the
realities of a world that is changing around them. Little does he know that this isolation does not
encourage Ona to conform, but rather does the opposite. Ona’s bitterness and loneliness lead her
to seek revenge by the play’s end.

32
Revenge and Regret?
Ona’s revenge is complete once she places the blame for her pregnant condition on her
father, though she does not seem to anticipate or understand the ramifications of her accusation.
Ona’s pregnancy is not scandalous in her Igbo society as it might be for an unwed woman in
most western cultures. Her pregnancy is viewed as the result of “legalized adultery”
(Evwierhoma 128) and considered necessary for the preservation of the family line. However,
parent-child incest is not condoned by Igbo society any more than it would be in a Western
community. Ona is well aware of this taboo, and she uses this aversion to besmirch her father’s
name—without honor, Cortuma is nothing. Ona decides upon this course of action quickly, and
in a mournful frenzy utters the following: “Yes, yes, my father has at last succeeded in ruining
my life. But I will show him. Ona will show him pepper… Yes, yes, I am going to implicate
him…Yes…Yes…The wheel must come right round…” (Onwueme 58). What Ona does not
consider is that the head of the family is the controller of its wealth. Cortuma’s fate will affect
the fate of the entire family. While Ona intended to obtain vengeance on her father, I do not
believe she intended that revenge to lead to his death. During the epilogue announcement of
Cortuma’s suicide, Ona rushes back and forth between altar and crucifix in confusion.
Cortuma’s suicide seems to surprise Ona, rather than satisfy her thirst for vengeance—nowhere
in her frantic mutterings does Ona mention killing her father or driving him to suicide. If
anything, Ona’s earlier statement implies that she desires equal retribution—her father has ruined
her life and taken away her future, so she will do the same to him. She does not seem to
understand how very successful she will be in this endeavor, and how she might harm herself by
doing so.
Afam Ebeogu calls Ona’s revenge an author-organized coup d’état (102), but I find this
statement problematic. True, Ona has wrested power from her father’s hands by implying that
he has fathered her child, but she does not anticipate what that power shift will do to her family.
The audience, largely unschooled in the cultural practices of the Igbo, sees only the immediate
results. However, scholars of these practices know that by driving Cortuma to suicide, Ona has
turned her mother into a widow, an unenviable state for any Igbo woman (Amadiume 83). A
widow is given to the care of her husband’s brother after a year of ritual seclusion and mourning.
Cortuma’s removal will not enable Oliaku to take control of the family’s wealth and power, but
rather displace the women of the household into another’s care (83). Ona will be forced into a

33
year of mourning as well, and will have to live under an uncle’s care until her child is born (83).
It is unclear whether or not a son would inherit her father’s household as it would pass to his
brother in absence of an heir. Had Ona’s child been a son, and had it been born at the time of
Cortuma’s death then that child would have been heir to Cortuma’s estate. However, Ona is still
pregnant at the time of Cortuma’s suicide. His estate will pass not to his offspring, but to his
nearest male relative—likely a brother. Ona’s quest for revenge has opened her family to
extreme financial insecurity: they will be the wards of another for the foreseeable future.
Furthermore, the manner of Cortuma’s death will cause the family to be ostracized in the Igbo
community: suicide is not an acceptable path for a chief of the community. Cortuma’s body will
not be buried or mourned properly (Onwueme 61). Furthermore, if the community observes
Igbo widowhood customs, Ona’s family will lose their high status within the community
(Amadiume 82).
African literary theorist Chidi Amuta states that Ona’s actions are “a victory for
modernity albeit a blood-stained victory, a way of illustrating the truism that socio-cultural
change is inevitably a contradictory process” (Evwierhoma 6). According to Amuta, Ona’s
success over her father’s seemingly outdated system of cultural practice is a viewed as a victory
for modernity and for the progress of the contemporary Nigerian woman. However, the bloody
nature of Ona’s success reinforces the idea that no progress can be made without violence and
loss. Because Ona and her father fail to communicate with each other, Amuta argues that there
is no non-violent resolution to this conflict. This is certainly a fact that proves true in
Onwueme’s play, though the absence of a third option—a path of compromise—leaves room for
doubt in Amuta’s theory that there can be no change without bloodshed. This absence prompts
the spectator to ask why there was no discussion between Cortuma and Ona, and why they
sought only to privilege their beliefs over the other’s rather than seek a solution to appease both
parties.
Neither Ona nor Cortuma consider communicating and compromising to rectify their
situation. Ona in particular speaks of violence when alluding to her own fate as well as her
parents’. In her vehement refusal to become an Igegbe, Ona threatens her parents with a storm:
“Let the wind blow—let the shaky homestead be blown. Anything that cannot stand the force of
change must be uprooted or be blown into oblivion by the storm heralding the new season”
(Onwueme 56). Little does Ona know that the storm will uproot and blow her world apart. As

34
Evwierhoma states, “The storm [sic] which she speaks of ‘blows’ her between the crucifix and
the shrine at the end of the play. […] In this play, the incompatibility of both values is greatly
underscored with the idea of fate having a hand in people’s lives” (Evwierhoma 131). It is true
that Ona spends her final moments on stage confusedly running from crucifix to ancestral altar
and back again, but I find this act highly symbolic of Ona’s plight throughout the play. Should
she honor her Christian ideals, taught to her by outsiders and unsupported by her family, or
should she honor the traditions and beliefs of her ancestors whose ideas seem so outdated? The
space between these two areas of the room represents Ona’s devotion to both sets of ideals, as
they have each contributed to forming her character. Ona is a child of both worlds, but neither
she nor her family knows how to unite the modern Christian woman with the traditional Igbo
daughter. Ona’s duties tear at her because she cannot find a middle ground.
Though Ona’s plight is pitiable, her struggle serves to establish the conflict that
Onwueme explores in her trio of plays. The Broken Calabash establishes the conflict between
older cultural practice and the new ideals flooding the Igbo from the Nigerian public education
system. Specifically, she introduces the idea of western feminism in this play, though it is not as
prominent as in her later works. Ona is the only truly feminist character in this piece, and she
struggles to find the middle ground between her ideas and her family’s values at all times—she
does not succeed in negotiating this struggle. Afam Ebeogu states that “Ona’s posture is defiant
and characteristically feminist. To argue that she is callous is to argue in favor of a cultural
system based on a myth of male superiority which robs the woman of the right to make her own
conjugal choice.” While I agree that Ona’s reaction to the Idgebe custom is understandable
considering her education and social network, I still find her actions lacking in the sympathy that
might have allowed her to seek a compromise with her father. Ebeogu argues that the Idgebe
custom exists solely for the assurance of a man’s obi (ancestral continuity), and that this custom
must “essentially satisfy the ethic of a male-dominated culture” (Ebeogu 99). We cannot deny
that Ona’s culture is very patriarchal. The societal constructs that allow Cortuma to implement
the Idgebe custom are the same structures that make Isah a male-dominated community. Ona
seeks to override the institutions that keep her community glued together, but she has no way of
changing society as a whole. This is lack of the power to make effective change in a community
as a female serves as a precursor to Onwueme’s later play, The Reign of Wazobia.

35
Each of Tess Onwueme’s plays searches for the middle ground that her female heroines
so often cannot see. By exposing an audience to their mistakes, she opens up conversation about
the inherent dangers of privileging one set of ideals over another instead of searching for
compromise. Onwueme’s work The Broken Calabash presents a situation that we cannot
influence or remedy—we must simply watch the situation disintegrate and remind ourselves that
a divided view of these issues will often lead to extreme conflict. Like Ona, we have the power
to subvert the forces that subjugate women: however, the failure of Ona should encourage us to
find the grey area of compromise and to seek out non-violent resolutions to our own conflicts.
Ona’s confusion and accidental overuse of her power is a reminder of our own potentially
destructive power as women of the West, women of Africa, or women of any place in between.

36
CHAPTER 2
PARABLES FOR A SEASON:
DIVINELY APPOINTED POWER DYNAMICS

Onwueme wrote Parables for A Season in 1991 in the United States rather than in her
native Nigeria. The piece concentrates on power structures in the Igbo kingdom of Idu and its
class-divided inhabitants. In the foreword of her text, Onwueme explains that the entire play is
an “extended metaphor on the significant place and role of women as universal pillars of stability
in times of socio-political stress and transition” (Onwueme 64). The socio-political transition
emerges from Obi 1 Ogiso’s abdication and the subsequent plots to gain power by manipulating
the regent election process. The regent’s upcoming election divides the community by class and
opinion, creating the central conflict of this piece. As a result, the piece becomes a densely
woven tale of subterfuge, danger, and intrigue: three women of disparate ages and with very
different motives discover their ability to promote change and to gain personal prestige. Anehe,
Zo, and Bia promote change through their own cunning, both using the men around them and
their own knowledge of their community to irrevocably alter their village. This piece, the second
of Onwueme’s trio of plays, explores the cultural clash that Onwueme established between older,
British ideas and new ideals in The Broken Calabash.
Parables’ action takes place over only a few days time, and Onwueme compresses
numerous events into five scenes, which she terms movements. Parables is an important
precursor to Onwueme’s more popular work, The Reign of Wazobia. In contrast to The Broken
Calabash and The Reign of Wazobia, the other two pieces in this trio, the female heroines are not
always the focus of the piece. Rather, focus centers on the power these women wield to promote
or thwart the agenda of the male antagonist of the piece, elitist Chief Iyase. These women
greatly affect Iyase’s attempted political and religious coup, and their efforts provide a source of
discussion on the theme of culture clash. Iyase’s arrogance toward the “termites,” or common
workers, in his community is reminiscent of reports of colonist attitudes toward the Igbo during
the age of British colonial rule in Nigeria. This attitude firmly establishes him as our antagonist
by the end of the first movement. Onwueme uses Iyase to open a discussion about the colonial
influence on the high-ranking and influential members of this society. We should also note that

1
Obi translates to King in Onwueme’s plays.

37
the title of the piece is very apt, as she creates three women to demonstrate methods of cleansing
the remaining negative effects of colonialism, and divinely rewards the one woman whose
actions are most appropriate.

Four Queens and a Landowner


Onwueme has successfully fused religion, tradition, local and international politics,
history, and mysticism together to form this beautifully complex piece. As with the other plays
in this trio, a western spectator often has trouble following the plot without knowledge of
Onwueme’s sources, so my first step is to identify and briefly describe these cultural practices. I
have also attempted to condense the main points of the plot into a linear storyline that is at times
unclear in such a poetic text. The piece opens with song and moves into a winding story told in a
unique mixture of poem and verse. Though Onwueme never clarifies the period of the play, we
know that it takes place after independence from Britain. The audience assumes that the play
takes place in modern day (the late 1980s at the time of workshops and productions).
As with all three of the plays I have studied, Parables for A Season opens with a prologue
and community activity. This prologue serves to set the tone of the piece and introduces the
village in the Idu kingdom in which this play is set. Onwueme’s stage directions state: “the
tension is so thick, one can cut it. The air seems thick, foreboding, and pregnant” (66). The
playwright presents us with a picture of a half-lit stage and a mansion surrounded by building
materials. Slow drums beat to the tune of mournful flutes as the villagers of Idu slowly enter the
stage, all walking in the same direction to the beat of the drum, headed toward the half-
constructed and luxurious building at the heart of the village. The Town Crier beats a drum, and
the community assembles, waiting for a message. The villagers hear a call for unity in what
appear to be troubled times. The Crier asks, “Can a single grain fill a basket? [..] Can a single
tree make a forest?” (Onwueme 67). Here the Crier subtly reminds the village that they must
work as one in times of trouble, such as the approaching time of transition. They are to plant and
reap, but more importantly they are to build a stronger community. The prologue ends with a
horn blowing in a working rhythm and villagers taking up hoe and cutlass, moving together to
finish the mansion’s construction. This opening is similar to the those of the other plays in this
trio as it mixes spectacle, dance, music, and contextual information to issue a warning to the
players on the stage and the members of the audience. A conflict approaches this village and

38
everyone in the theatre knows it. This prologue is brief and to the point, lacking the subtlety of
the other prologues in the trio. It reminds the village that in times of crisis, a community must
work as one to achieve a productive and profitable future.
Obi (King) Ogiso introduces this crisis in the first movement after the opening ceremony.
As the “termites of Idu” (69) or citizens of the Idu kingdom, begin work in earnest on the
incomplete building, the Town Crier reiterates his message of community building—and the
community literally builds! As they construct the mansion, the Town Crier initiates a call and
response song. It is to this song that King Ogiso enters to make a shocking announcement to his
queens and the gathered chiefs: he will abdicate the throne because he has not had a male heir to
the throne (69). Ogiso’s self-imposed exile seems strange as he leaves four wives 2 behind—one
of whom is in the late stages of pregnancy. Ogiso argues that “many times, some plant that
others may harvest” (70). Ogiso feels that it is time for someone else to rule the throne of Idu in
his stead. His mind is set despite the protests of his wives and three daughters, but he tarries to
answer the questions of his subjects. The king does not reassure the women, but tells them to
preserve the work he has done as ruler and to prepare themselves for the transition ahead.
Ogiso’s final parting words are a veiled warning for his attendants, queens, and daughters. He
speaks of a storm that will challenge this “generation of the deaf who have eyes to see but cannot
see beyond [their noses]” (77), implying that the queens must contend with Idu citizens who will
seek to attain the throne and misuse the power it grants. Onwueme often uses the metaphor of a
storm to address the subject of sweeping change. In this case, the storm will come in the form of
a new regent and the changes she brings. 3 It is this generation that must survive the storm and
those who will work against the changes of the new regent. With only these words of warning,
Ogiso leaves.
The throne room empties and soon only the women are present. Ogiso’s queens remain
behind as his followers trail after the king to say final farewells. Wa, Zo, Bia, and Anehe begin
to discuss their lives as newly discarded queens. Through their conversation, we become aware
of the tension between the four women. Zo and Bia’s loyalty to the former king is firmly pitted
against Anehe and Wa’s opportunism. Anehe comes to the crux of the matter: the women should
concentrate on gaining power in society while there is an opportunity to do so. While the women

2
Ogiso’s four queens are Wa, Zo, Bia, and Anehe.
3
We later learn that the regent of Idu must be a female. She is vested with all the powers of an acting ruler, but only
holds the position for 3 seasons (Onwueme 121).

39
argue over what is right and necessary, Iyase, former advisor to the king and local chief, slips
into the room unnoticed and observes the bickering queens. As Wa urges the women to unite to
plan for the time ahead, Iyase interrupts. “And you think it’s the likes of you who can complete
the task?” He shouts at the women “Get you gone! You less than females” (81-82). Iyase’s
shouts suggest that, naturally, the task of ruling should fall to a man such as himself. However,
as suddenly as Iyase shouts at the women, he recollects himself and becomes an obsequious,
toadying man, thanking the women for making his ascension to the throne so effortless. Iyase
sits down on the newly abandoned throne, and the women divide again. Anehe and Wa gravitate
toward this new focus of power while Zo departs in anger and Bia stands silent. Iyase has drawn
the line in the sand and the women have now chosen which side to champion.
The second movement begins with the Town Crier announcing that the oracle has spoken
and that an election will select a regent to sit as surrogate king on the throne. The Crier makes
this announcement as the people of Idu gather to begin construction once more. We see that the
community is not simply building a mansion, they are also building community through the
village architecture project. The town crier places responsibility for the success of the kingdom
on the people’s heads. “Builders and destroyers all at once,” he cries—for indeed, this is what a
termite’s function is. The half-constructed mansion is representative of the new government
that arrives with the new regent. Three termites, Ozoma, Adamawa, and Sotimo, pause in their
work to have an extended conversation about the crier’s announcement and its implications.
Their discussion reveals that a group within the community has substantial political support, but
old ideas. They predict that this small group of corrupt individuals will take power by gaining
the majority vote in the upcoming regent election through surreptitious means (85). The
ceremony to which they refer is part religious selection, and part community election, leaving the
opportunity for landowners to sway both religious and civic officials (85-86). This possibility
worries the three workers, as this group of chiefs believes in “atavistic concepts of race and
superiority” (85). As stated in the introduction to this thesis, during colonial rule, the British
awarded power to undeserving and unproven male youths of the Igbo. These youths were
notorious for their abuse of their rights as “government officials” and of the people that they
governed (Van Allen 175). However, when the British appointed these young men, they created
a new generation of royalty in Igbo communities. I believe that Iyase is of this royal blood for
his ancestors ruled Idu before Nigeria declared independence and the village became a

40
democratic monarchy (88). Ogiso became a king by right of election after independence, but
now that he has abdicated he cannot preside over the next election to ensure that the villagers
democratically elect the new regent. If Iyase convinces the people that a ruler of royal blood
should replace Ogiso, the regent election process will cease to function properly and the
community will revert to the system of nobility that the British successfully altered in the early
twentieth century.
Iyase and Idehen interrupt the men’s rant against the dysfunctional democracy that now
governs their community. These two men are representatives of the wealthy plotters discussed
only moments earlier. The chiefs lecture the workers on their place in society and remind them
that the wealthy own the land upon which the half-built mansion sits, and that the workers are
therefore in their employ+. Iyase’s arrogance angers the workers and he states with no little
pride, “Your sweat will always irrigate our land” (88). Iyase challenges the workers to best him
in his plot to take the throne of Idu, and the workers agree to his challenge. As the election is
only one day away, Iyase taunts the workers with their inability to alter the unbalanced and
corrupt system. The movement ends ominously with the workers crying, “We shall see” (88).
By the third movement, Iyase is swaggering with confidence as the heir-apparent to the
Idu throne. The lights come up on him “looking with relish on the throne, the magnificence of
the building and the surroundings” (89). Iyase views these things as his own property, much as
he views the people of Idu as his personal servants. He speaks of the citizens who would be
under his dominion as a platform, a ferry, and a carpet—they are objects for him to stand on, and
which serve only to increase his power and grandeur. The joy of such potential wealth and
power causes Iyase to start dancing. During this dance, the spectator learns more about the
constitutional law of Idu: 4 a woman must sit on the throne as regent, not a man. Iyase has
decided to ignore the law and convince the community to elect a new King, rather than select a
regent. Such an action would circumvent the woman-regent convention and allow the kingdom
to elect a permanent male ruler. He believes that as a leading chief among his people and a man
“with the royal blood of Idu” (90) running through his veins, he would be a favorite for such a
position. The entrance of the former queen Anehe interrupts Iyase’s reverie, and while
embarrassed and frightened by her discovery, but quickly recovers to enlist her aid. Anehe is

4
Onwueme’s mention of a constitution is odd here, as most Igbo communities do not have a Western-style, written
constitution. Most communities operate on established traditions rather than by written legislation. However, this
device allows Onwueme to explain the need for a female regent and Iyase’s desire to circumvent the law.

41
suspicious of Iyase and his presence in the throne room in the middle of the night, but Iyase
quickly convinces her to disregard his unwelcome presence in favor of an offer of permanent
power as his queen. After he makes this offer, Anehe helps Iyase in whatever way she can. She
is quick to point out that all of Iyase’s plans could be foiled if Bia’s unborn child happens to be a
boy. 5 Iyase does not pause to consider this for he must hide when he hears Zo’s footsteps. She
enters after hearing voices that seemed to be “deep in motive,” and seeks to find their source
(94). She finds only Anehe and proceeds to confront her in the same way Anehe has just
confronted Iyase. Anehe attempts to convince Zo that she is simply spearheading a movement
aimed at protecting the mansion built in Ogiso’s name. Anehe’s story sounds false, but Zo has
little time to express her disbelief or protest Iyase’s presence. Idehen and Wa enter the throne
room after hearing the argument between Zo and Anehe. Idehen and Iyase attack Zo, binding
and beating her until she loses consciousness. They remove her body from the stage, but what
becomes of it is unclear. Moments later, Iyase and Idehen bind and beat the pregnant Bia with
the help of Queen Wa, hoping to force Bia into early labor so that they might kill the child. The
first part of their plan succeeds. Bia gives birth to a male child whom Anehe takes away with the
intention of leaving the child on the side of the road to die of exposure. The three conspirators
leave Bia to bleed to death on the floor of the throne room.
Suddenly, an unscathed Zo re-enters with her mother (Old Termite) who is from “across
the waters” (101). We are not sure how Zo has escaped her bonds, but the beating seems to have
transformed Zo. She is now Wazobia, a young and supremely confidant woman. Zo explains to
her mother that she wishes to cleanse this corrupt society. She asks, “How much longer must we
cower in the face of evil? The air that is hot gives way for the air that is cool” (102). Here Zo
refers to the wealthy and corrupt chiefs who will attempt to place Iyase on the throne and her fate
as the woman who must thwart their plans. She vows to be the breath of fresh air that will save
the community from such tyranny. While Zo is criticizing Idu, she finds Bia’s child beside the
footpath (102). Her mother volunteers to care for the child, a task she relishes as her sons were
taken away to a distant land as slaves long before (102). The Old Termite exits just as Bia enters
the stage searching for the boy. Instead, she finds Zo who introduces herself as Wa-zo-bia, a
name that includes the names of three of the four queens. We should note that this construction

5
Onwueme never fully explains the order of succession in this community, but we assume that a male child would
reinforce the need for a regent as opposed to a new king.

42
encompasses the three youngest queens, none of whom directly chose to support Iyase’s plots. 6
“Oh, Wazobia! That name chimes in my ears like…like…like a home call. Oh Zo—Wazobia!
A stranger and yet a friend” (107). Here is the relief that the wronged Bia desires, and here is
Wazobia’s first chance to begin her work as a pillar of female strength in her community.
Wazobia explains the meaning of her name— “Come” in Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo (Ajay 111)
—and informs Bia that she has come “as a daughter of the kingdom and in obedience to the
constitution, [she has] come to cast [her] lot” for the regency. Zo does not refer to her plans to
become regent of Idu. She only speaks of exercising her right and duty to vote for the next
person to rule the community.
The fourth movement is a brief scene that brings us back to the plots of Idehen, Anehe,
and Iyase. The scene opens with Iyase sprinting to the throne and preening in his position as
heir-apparent (108). He speaks to himself and to the throne, caressing it as though it is a woman.
Iyase does not touch the throne seductively, but he does anthropomorphize it, referring to the
throne as a woman to be raped so that he might use it to achieve additional power (109). He
continues this disturbing one-sided conversation until Anehe and Idehen enter and interrupt.
Anehe and Idehen are both there to encourage Iyase to organize his words, for he must spin a
crafty tale to convince the people of Idu that they have no need for a female regent (110). As
Idehen goes out into the marketplace to prepare the people for Iyase’s speech, Anehe and Iyase
embrace. Anehe wisely uses this moment to ask for assurance that Iyase will provide for her as
his queen. She receives this assurance, but discovers that Iyase intends to discard Idehen after he
has outlived his usefulness. Before Anehe can comment on this fact, Idehen re-enters and
declares that it is time for the election and for Iyase to make his case (111).
The final movement of this piece is set in the marketplace—the meeting place for all
general assemblies in this community. Iyase, Idehen, and Anehe gather all the “sons and
daughters of the soil” 7 in a secret meeting before dawn. At this meeting, they make the people
swear that they will cast their votes for Iyase. The land owners willingly make this vow in a
dance-ceremony, and agree that any person who “divulges our secret or goes against us shall
give his head as toll” (112). The worker citizens of Idu quickly fill the marketplace and we hear

6
While Wa stands with Anehe at the beginning of the play, she is passive throughout the rest of the action and never
directly helps Iyase. Her passive stance and silent support of Anehe is diametrically opposed to Bia’s support of Zo.
7
Onwueme does not indicate who these “sons and daughters of the soil” are. However, as the meeting must be kept
a secret from the “termites” of Idu, the spectator might assume that the sons of the soil are landowners like Iyase and
Idehen.

43
several muttered discussions about the corrupt elections system. Iyase quickly quells these
mutterings when he begins the speech he has been planning since the first movement of the play.
However, three workers, Adamawa, Sotimo, and Ozimo (last seen in the second movement),
drown out Iyase’s speech. They object to Iyase and his attitude toward working people in the
marketplace for all to hear, and soon all the workers cry for Iyase to stop talking and for the vote
to be waived for this election: they ask that the gods select the king (116). A ritual begins in
which a child of the soil from the previous secret meeting before performs a ritual dance. Iyase
hands the child the ceremonial calabash with a knowing smile, implying that he has somehow
compromised this ceremony as well as the vote. At the end of her dance, the child throws the
calabash in the air—it will land at the new King’s feet, signaling that the gods have chosen this
person to rule. When the calabash lands at the feet of Zo (still Wazobia), rather than Iyase, the
chiefs stare in amazement: this was not the plan. The workers proclaim their joy at the choice
and place Zo on the throne. A lavish coronation dance begins, and workers bring gifts from
nearby houses and place them at the new “king’s” feet. It is now that Zo unmasks herself to
reveal that she is a former queen of Idu, though the name Wazobia shall remain hers (120).
Zo/Wazobia does not waste time in exercising her new power, for she forces Iyase to kneel
before her and wash her feet as she sits upon the throne. This act serves more to humiliate Iyase
in front of the citizens of the village and to establish Wazobia’s place as ruler. The termite chiefs
praise their new King 8 , but Zo ends the play by exclaiming, “No! I am woman! I carve my own
path. Termites of Idu, a female leads you in the new dance step. Up! Lift your hands to the
horizon. A woman leads” (121).

Women with Power


In 1975, feminist literary critic Cheri Register wrote about the need for positive female
characters in literature, stating that “Although female readers need literary models to emulate,
characters should not be idealized beyond plausibility. The demand for authenticity supersedes
all other requirements” (Gilbert 121). Here Onwueme has provided three female characters that
are flawed creatures, as vulnerable to their own desires as they are attached to ideas of
community building. In Parables, three of Ogiso’s four queens hold three very different types of

8
It should be noted that Wazobia’s people refer to her as King, and that the selection ceremony Onwueme describes
is for the election of a monarch, not a regent. This stance alters in the final play of the trio, in which Wazobia is a
regent, not a true monarch.

44
power. Anehe, the eldest queen of Ogiso, holds the power of knowledge in the ways of her
community and the respect that the Igbo award with age. Younger queen Bia claims the power
for procreation, for she is pregnant with the possible heir to Ogiso’s throne. Zo, later Wazobia,
has the power education and a desire to use it to help her people. None of these powers can be
discounted or deemed less important than another type, for each is necessary to life in an Igbo
village. While none of these powers is diametrically opposed to another, it is intriguing that
Onwueme chooses to place these powers in three separate characters, not all three in one. As
Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins state in their theoretical work, the women who claim power
in postcolonial dramas “are not superwomen who are above failure; nevertheless, the staged
women who do succeed provide women in the audience with models for individual and
collective action” (Gilbert 121). The ways Anehe, Bia, and Zo choose to exercise their power as
females, as queens, and as members of the Idu community help to form the complex plot that is
Parables for a Season and serve as examples of the various types of influence a woman can have
in an Igbo society. For cross-cultural spectators, these women are also examples of the
empowered Nigerian female. Spectators can learn from their mistakes and from their triumphs,
as well as bear witness to the cultural struggles these women encounter in their Igbo
communities.
As I stated previously, Anehe’s power stems from her position as an older woman in the
community and from her position as the first queen of Ogiso. Igbo culture links age, wisdom,
and wealth, for these are the necessary components that make a Big Man or Big Woman (Van
Allen 172). She is also wealthy, even as a former queen. As such, she is the person to turn to
when the community needs to seek advice or take action. Anehe understands the structure of the
kingdom well enough to share her expertise and increase her own standing in the community. In
this case, Anehe is the person to turn to when Iyase wishes to take power. She is able to point
out the potential flaws in Iyase’s plan for the kingdom, reminding him of Bia’s unborn child, his
poor reputation with the workers, and his often careless words. Anehe becomes Iyase’s coach in
the race for the throne not because she wishes to sit on the throne herself, but because she wishes
to maintain her position as a respected queen in the community. Indeed, Iyase seems lost
without Anehe to guide him and remind him of the steps necessary to succeed in his
underhanded endeavor.

45
Anehe has no desire to take a more direct hold on the power of the kingdom through
attaining the regency. While this lack of desire may seem puzzling to the western spectator, it
fits perfectly with the actions associated with Anehe throughout the play. Anehe chooses her
position not because she is afraid of power—indeed she seems capable of anything in the third
movement—but because she does not want to lose the power she already holds. Anehe shrewdly
recognizes that, as regent, she would rule temporarily. As the permanent queen of Obi Iyase, she
would be able to steer the unstable chief with her wisdom and rule indirectly through his power.
Anehe does not make the choice to become Iyase’s queen and help him attain a place in the
community as ruler wantonly. She understands that this is a man who, while irrational and
elitist, will turn to her time and time again for help during his reign. Anehe wishes to be the
king’s right-hand woman, for this is a position that assures permanent power as opposed to the
temporary power of a regent. We never learn whether Anehe wishes to improve her community
or not, as we only see her desire to gain power, not her desire to wield it. Oddly, while Wa aids
Anehe out of fear of the older woman, she does not remain a prominent or active character
beyond the third movement. Her main purpose in the text seems to be as a follower of Anehe
and as the namesake of the first part of Wazobia’s new identity.
Bia’s character is the antithesis of Anehe’s brash high-handedness. While Anehe’s
power is subtle (and at times surreptitious), Bia’s is quiet and one of the oldest recognized forms
of power: Bia has the power of motherhood. More particularly, she could potentially bring the
next ruler of Idu into this world. Gilbert and Tompkins state that “Onwueme’s plays recognize
and respect the more traditional roles of women as mothers and nurturers but do not confine
women to their reproductive functions” (122). While Anehe and Iyase define Bia by her
pregnancy (and later attempt to kill her for it), Zo recognizes that Bia has value as both a former
queen and female follower of the new regent. If indeed “the task of woman is to build—to
create” (Onwueme 104), then Bia helps to build by both giving birth to an heir to the throne and
by supporting Zo/Wazobia in her quest for change.
Zo’s gift is perhaps the most obvious of all, for she is the only one of the three queens
whose strength relies direct action. She does not need fertility or the ability to bear a male child,
nor does she need to be the unseen power behind a male front. As such an individual, Zo quickly
becomes the heroine of the piece, for she is the most altruistic and self-assured woman of the
three queens. She returns to her community, albeit in disguise, with the sole intention of righting

46
the wrongs that others have committed there. She intends to rout the dissenting male chiefs in
their plan to return the community to a system of control similar to that imposed by British
colonists. The colonial status of the Idu kingdom was one where only a few, male members of
the community controlled all power, wealth, and land. British colonists gave these unproven
men their wealth and political power (Van Allen 168), and it appears that the chiefs of Idu are
eager to recapture that bygone era. The Idu chiefs are intent on reviving the systems that
originally placed them in positions of power—British governmental structure served them well
before, and it will serve them well again. The fact that Zo has recognized the corruption in her
society and the danger of Iyase’s rule proves that she is an observant and aware woman. The
fact that she wants to help her community by eliminating such corruption shows that she believes
she has the skills and knowledge to do so. Onwueme implies that Zo’s place in her society is
divinely appointed, and that as such she must lead her people in a new direction, away from
corrupt officials and outdated modes of thought.
Zo serves a secondary purpose as a source of inspiration to other women. Zo’s mother is
the Old Termite from across the sea (Onwueme 101), returned from America to help her
daughter in her quest to save the village from Iyase’s tyranny. Zo is the daughter of a common
woman with no wealth or prestige in the community. She is also an educated queen of Idu, a
position of considerable wealth and power. Zo also inspires Bia with her self-assured attitude
toward her rights and duty as a former queen of Idu. Zo’s monarchy comes as a reward gifted by
the gods for her upright nature and desire to do good in her community. All the same, Zo
recognizes her position in the community, both as ruler and as woman. She ends the piece with
the proclamation that it is she, a woman, who rules Idu. A woman will bring change to this
unsettled community. No mention is made of Bia’s son, rescued from the side of the road just
pages earlier. This omission and Zo’s proclamation indicate that sweeping changes will cross
the land and that the male heir is no longer the focus of socio-political life in Idu.
Scholar of African-American and multicultural literature Eugene Redmond states that this
play “suggest[s] a rearrangement of the world so as to strip it of male hegemony, class
oppression, indifference to youth, [and] blind deference to elders.” Onwueme creates Zo to
attain this lofty goal. As an educated woman and a ruler, Zo is able to think for herself rather
than blithely listening to her peers or to her elders. By removing the threat of a male tyrant,
forcing him to submit to her will, and omitting any mention of Bia’s child, Zo has stripped her

47
community of male hegemony and established herself as the superior figure in that society.
Likewise, Iyase’s demotion from heir apparent and Wazobia’s ascension to power have reversed
the very caste system that Iyase would have tried to reinforce. Zo forces the wealthy Iyase to
bow in deference and wash her termite-born feet (Onwueme 120). The tables have turned, and
now the self-made woman sits upon the throne and has power over the unruly, landowning chiefs
of Idu. The entire community is now paying homage to a young female rather than Iyase and
Anehe. The workers no longer follow the instructions of their elders.
“Zo’s triumphant movement into the play’s future performs a history for Igbo women
located specifically in the post-contact days of slave-trading; yet this history/parable is equally
resonant for twentieth-century Nigerian women whom the play exhorts to ‘carve [their] own
path’” (Gilbert 121). We mark Zo’s reign because of her references to the historic colonial past
and the resurgence of those imperialist, elitist ideas in her community. These ideas create true
fear in the hearts of the Idu termites represented in this play, and it is these ideas (embodied in
Iyase) that Zo intends to eradicate. In Parables for A Season, Zo seeks to destroy postcolonial
biases by “transcending Eurocentric negations of the people’s culture” (www.africa.upenn.edu),
and thus the people themselves. This negation is most obvious in Iyase and Idehen’s attitude
toward the people of this Idu village, their wealth and land holdings, and their exalted position
within the community. Zo ascends to the throne of her community as a well-informed woman
with great ideas in her head and a desire to improve the lives of her people. Onwueme continues
the story of her regency, struggles, and successes in The Reign of Wazobia.

Postcolonial Conflict
Eugene Redmond states, “As an African-Nigerian-Igbo-woman-feminist-artist, Onwueme
in her life and history has been, at least on one level, configured by colonialism, tribalism,
imperialism, racism, sexism, stereotype, and classicism” (Onwueme 16). As Onwueme’s work
draws on her position as a Nigerian woman working on Western soil and conflicting desires to
express views from both homes, it is no surprise that all of these elements are prevalent in her
plays on women, postcolonialism, and human rights. We know that Onwueme “writes in pursuit
of social reconstruction” (www.africa.upenn.edu) for she has stated that she considers writing “a
dialogue between the writer and the society. People create social conditions and people can
change social conditions for the better” (Onwueme 11). Onwueme’s plays are a vehicle for

48
promoting social change in her Igbo communities and in the west, for they inform the spectator
about the culture clash in Igbo villages and draws attention to the inequalities in any society in
which they may be performed. Although the plays focus on Igbo women from western Nigeria,
their message calls for audiences to fight for the changes they feel are necessary in their
communities. Onwueme’s plays focus on what she believes most important in her
communities—the ability to consider and implement change in “traditional” communities,
though the content of her plays acknowledges that this process is rarely simple. Onwueme writes
characters that are both aware of the beliefs of their communities and yet still open to change
through progress. While her characters consistently try to unseat tradition, they never fully
succeed in doing so, indicating that Onwueme recognizes that such a process cannot be
instantaneous. However, if colonialism is both “the universal evolutionary progress of
modernization [and] a particular strategy or experiment in domination and exploitation” (Pels
163), how do Onwueme’s characters implement change without destroying the identities their
Igbo communities have worked so hard to construct?
Zo’s mother, the Old Termite, also represents the discomfort that appears when
characters threaten the community with colonial ideals. Onwueme’s stage directions inform us
that the Old Termite has come home to Idu from across the sea—a reference to either the North
American or British shores where Nigerian slaves arrived so many decades ago. As the play has
no set time and as the Old Termite’s exact age and origins remain unknown, we can accept this
with little question. When Zo and her mother find Bia’s newborn child abandoned on the
footpath, the fears of slavery and abduction rise to the surface again: “A black male child costly
as a gem, and I who longed for one since I lost my twins to the slave raiders,” she cries! Iyase’s
abuse of the male, Igbo child is particularly offensive to Zo’s mother because of past British
atrocities. Eugene Redmond believes that “the culturally centered position of the black male
child and the ominous historical threat to his survival” causes the fears of colonial rule to
resurface. Iyase and Anehe have now committed crimes akin to those committed by British
rulers in years past. Spectators may learn that there is a constant fear of re-colonization places
great stress on the interpretation of new ideas in these communities. Perhaps we also begin to
understand the resistance and fear of Iyase’s domineering ways, inspired by the colonizers of the
British Empire in the early part of the twentieth century.

49
Conclusion
Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins discuss Onwueme’s Parables as both an allegorical
and a semi-historical text. There are some women who managed to rise to power within Igbo
society in both colonial and postcolonial times (Evwierhoma 38), though they are few and far
between. Dramatizing stories that invoke the tales of those near-mythical and nameless women
serves as a reminder that society creates male hegemony, and it is not an age-old tradition that
cannot change. As Onwueme’s play only hints at the possible reinstatement of colonial rules, the
spectator finds meaning in the resistance Iyase encounters when attempting to seize the
monarchy.
Dramatising women as history’s central figures can be particularly subversive in
cultures which have always reserved for male elders both the power and prerogative of
public action. Likewise, theatre that contests the myth of women’s compliance with
patriarchal authority focuses attention on reviewing and renewing debate about women’s
roles within postcolonial cultures. (Gilbert 121)
Onwueme’s use of women as her central and most powerful characters helps to invigorate the
conversation on women’s roles and, indeed, women’s rights in contemporary Igbo communities.
They also serve as a point of focus in Western discussions of oppression: this piece asks us to
question the rights women hold in all countries and to ask if an oppressor is denying us our basic
human rights. Onwueme’s work serves to highlight male hegemony in Western culture as
effectively as it does in Nigeria. Africanist Xaviere Gauthier states that “Women are in fact
caught in a very real contradiction. Throughout the course of history, they have been mute, and
it is doubtless by virtue of the mutism that men have been able to speak and write. As long as
women remain silent, they will be outside the historical process” (Evwierhoma 11).
The most important goal of Onwueme’s work is to affirm the presence of powerful
women who can effect change in her plays. Gilbert and Tompkins mention that “Onwueme’s
work restores a sense of autonomy and political agency to Nigerian women who are usually
portrayed as either dutiful or disobedient wives, if at all” (Gilbert 121). Anehe, Zo, and Bia are
representative of the ways in which a woman can create change within her traditional
community, even though the conventions of this community restrict the movements of females.
However, these women represent something more, as they are the gatekeepers for progress
within their communities. How will Zo use her newfound power, and will she be able to garner

50
the support of her fellow women as she has done with Bia? Though there are holes in the
continuity between Parables and our final play, Wazobia, I am intrigued to see how Zo uses her
status to change her community and how that community receives those attempts.

51
CHAPTER 3
THE REIGN OF WAZOBIA:
CULTURAL SHIFTS AND REDISTRIBUTION OF POWER

Tess Onwueme wrote The Reign of Wazobia in 1988, and though the Ibadan Press in
Africa was first to publish the piece the first recorded performances took place in 1991 at Smith
College in Massachusetts. Academic and professional theatres in the northeastern United States
produced the piece soon after this initial performance (www.writertess.com). The appeal of this
Nigerian play to American playgoers and directors is indicative of Tess Onwueme’s versatility in
writing style. Her plays may focus on the very African themes of postcolonial reconstruction
and the contemporary Igbo woman, but they speak to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic
Ocean with universal queries on power and the nature of societal change. In particular, Wazobia
is appealing to diverse audiences because of its portrayal of the trope of the newly empowered
female. This third play in Onwueme’s trio is intriguing because it reverses the cultural clash that
the author has spent the previous two plays establishing and exploring. As the story of Wazobia
unfolds, the central character remains steadfast in her desire to liberate the women of her village
from an unfair and patriarchal system. However, this process of liberation serves to reveal many
of the inherent problems that the villagers encounter when engaging with Wazobia’s new ideas.
Scholars of postcolonial dramatic theory often comment on Onwueme’s work and its
portrayal of both the postcolonial and colonial fears of the Igbo people she so often writes about.
Of particular note is Onwueme’s engagement with the idea of gender, a traditional Igbo society,
and the conflicts that arise between women educated in western style and men whose ideas stem
from a shared colonial past. Awam Amkpa, a Nigerian scholar of African feminist theatre,
writes that Onwueme’s portrayal of postcolonial Nigeria’s “crisis over gender exposes the often
insidious marriage of anticolonial nationalism with male supremacy” (Amkpa 71). The idea that
anticolonial nationalism and male supremacy are linked makes me question what will happen to
that nationalism if power dynamics are reorganized. Or does Onwueme write of a community
that is living in the colonial past, a society where women are less powerful than their male
counterparts, customs restricting their movement within Igbo society?
Anthropologist Ifi Amadiume states that the Igbo women are one of the most well-
researched social groups within Nigeria (Amadiume 20). Anthropologists who study Nigeria

52
research systems of inheritance, politics, mothering, mourning, and distribution of power
amongst the women of this patriarchal society and paint a picture of a functional female
community, despite an obvious difference in the opportunities and choices available to Igbo men
and women. Anthropological representations of Igbo women often portray them as hard-
working, home-centered women who are militant only when those outside their community
threaten their conventional (socially created) women’s rights (30). Onwueme’s portrayal of Igbo
women is slightly different, though this is not surprising considering the fact that her knowledge
of this indigenous population is filtered through the lens of a former resident, not of a purely
western scholar. In the text The Reign of Wazobia, she interprets the women of the Anioma
kingdom 1 through the eyes of both a character who is native Igbo and an educated Nigerian
woman, an advantage which allows her work to appeal to audiences in Africa and the West.
While the tale of Wazobia is fictional, the conflict Onwueme creates through her title character
provides an intriguing peek into the world of the Igbo woman, showcasing both the problems
women encounter in this society and what they may do to overcome them.
Wazobia is the most produced play of the three in this thesis project for a number of
reasons. African writer Eugene Redmond notes that, among other subjects, Onwueme embraces
discussion on both postcolonial subject matter and criticism of the outdated cultural practices in
many Nigerian communities in her plays (Redmond 14-16). Onwueme does not rely on a
previous knowledge of the British repression of Igbo communities to convey her point, but rather
relies on the obvious oppression of her female characters to demonstrate the repercussions of
British colonization in contemporary Igbo society. She does not, however, seek to discount the
influence that these women have in this society, for they are not without some power. Writer
Eugene Redmond states that “the women in this trilogy are all ascending. Involved women.
Evolved women. Evolving women. African women with themselves, their men, their children,
their families, their neighbors” (17). Onwueme pays homage to women on many levels in both
The Broken Calabash and Parables for a Season. In The Reign of Wazobia, she demonstrates
how one woman effectively wrests power from her male counterparts and puts it to use,

1
As Igbo scholar Don Ohadike explains in his book Anioma: A Social History of the Western Igbo People, the
Anioma Kingdom is a phrase that refers to the Western Igbo of Nigeria. The term was chosen by the Igbo of this
area and its literal translation is “those who live on the good and prosperous land.” Nigerians began to use this term
in the 1970’s, when the Western Igbo people (termed such by British colonizers in the late nineteenth century)
sought to replace the British term with one of their own choosing. The term Anioma comes from the phrase ndi
Anioma (Ohadike 2).

53
attempting to improve her community for both women and men. By portraying Wazobia as a
divinely appointed female monarch in a post traditionally occupied by a male, Onwueme
demonstrates the ability of one extraordinary woman to make a difference on the socio-political
level in her community. This woman’s efforts, however, do not stand uncontested and are
problematized within the text itself. I seek to engage with both Wazobia’s political decisions
within her community and the issues that emerge from her legislation.
Wazobia is an unconventional ruler for she is a woman educated according to Western
standards, not unlike Onwueme herself (Onwueme 123). In the precursor to this play, Parables
for A Season, Wazobia is awarded the position of surrogate-king or regent, 2 traditionally held by
a female for a period of three seasons, 3 through a religious ritual intended to find the correct
ruler. The results of this ritual were approved and upheld by the less-privileged (non-Chieftain)
members of the community (Onwueme 118). Wazobia uses her new position and her advanced
education in an attempt to improve matters for men and women alike in her community, though
women will benefit more immediately than men. What I have found most interesting about this
particular piece is Onwueme’s engagement with the conflict created by Wazobia’s western-
inspired reforms and the more conventional Igbo community in which she attempts to implement
changes. In this chapter I will explore Wazobia’s royal decrees for the community and its
reaction, her participation and involvement in the community’s changes, and the position from
which Wazobia implements these changes. The play’s opening image is a discordant dance that
represents an elemental power struggle between old and new, male and female “power.” The
play’s prologue portrays palpable tension between the opposing forces that create the main
conflict of this play.

Wazobia, the Woman King


The Reign of Wazobia is written in a prologue and six dance movements, which introduce
the audience to the conflict of the piece, take the audience through Wazobia’s ascension to the
community’s throne, then show the changes Wazobia enforces within her community and the
subsequent plots against her regime. The piece begins three seasons after the end of Parables for

2
Onwueme uses both the terms surrogate-king and regent to describe Wazobia’s new position (136).
3
We do not know what constitutes a “season” in Onwueme’s play. This may be a physical change in weather, a
year, or a period of planting and harvesting.

54
a Season at the termination of Wazobia’s regency. King Wazobia 4 is the focal point of the stage,
and during this wordless prologue she leads the women of Anioma in a dance around the village
on stage. The women dance around their ruler in the nude as a symbolic sign of fealty to their
king. A masquerade interrupts the women with a backward dance, entrancing the women
surrounding Wazobia into following its strange antics. 5 This male force 6 is physically
threatening in his movements, though he never touches any of the women on stage. The tension
becomes palpable as Wazobia, leader of the dancing women, contends with the opposing male
power and his backward dance. Finally, the backward movements cease and the masquerade
leaves the circle, shooting Wazobia a warning glance upon its departure. From these simple stage
directions, the text indicates a struggle between the male and female forces on the stage.
However, these male and female forces are not the only conflict on this stage. The backward
dance of the masquerade is representative of this village’s ties to the past, and it is those very ties
that exclude women from participating fully in the masquerade’s antics. The dancer’s presence
demonstrates male power and male inclusion in the ritualistic life of the Igbo, and it the dancer’s
presence that introduces the secondary, yet equally important, conflict of the piece—the conflict
between cultural convention and the progressive change that Wazobia brings to the community.
As the masquerade exits, the women turn to face the more physical threat of the angered
male opposition: the men of their community have come to see King Wazobia, clothed in the
regalia of war. The women form a half-circle around Wazobia in a stance of protection. The
women, save Wazobia, are naked. I argue that this is not an objectified display of female flesh,
but a bold statement to the male force they seek to fight. Their naked dance is not a display of
grief, as the time for mourning Ogiso is three seasons past. 7 Rather, these women are standing
naked before Wazobia in protest of approaching violence. Their nudity is representative of the
frailty of the human form and the value of human life, a value that Wazobia reinforces in her
warlike speech. More importantly, their nudity in this context is a matter of choice (whereas

4
It should be noted that Wazobia is a female in male regalia.
5
A masquerade is a dancer dressed in traditional mask costume. This mask does not resemble the masks of Western
dramatic traditions for it covers the entire body with strips of colorful cloth that spin out as the dancer performs.
The facial part of this mask is carved from wood. The masquerade is representative of the spirits of dead ancestors
and is a highly trained male dancer. This dance is both a communication with and representation of the spirits of the
dead (www.amnh.org).
6
Masquerades cannot be performed by females—this is a male only religious practice (www.amnh.org).
7
As I will discuss in the next section of this paper, the female ritual of the naked dance in the community
marketplace is a part of the final funeral rites for a dead husband. All the wives of the deceased male must
participate to demonstrate their innocence in his death (Amadiume 30).

55
ritual mourning nudity is not). Wazobia’s women are prepared to engage in combat for the
newly introduced rights that Wazobia bestows in the flashback scenes to follow. The women
dance in a moon shape, a traditional symbol of femininity in Eastern and Western societies
including Igbo (Egudu 21). This reinforces their presence as a female power both through this
shape and their nakedness, for their ritualistic dance is of their own creation, not one forced upon
them by patriarchic custom. Amkpa states that this shape “represents a provocative semiotic
subversion of patriarchy. An army of female bodies, objectified for ages as things of sex,
transform themselves into political statements against the kingdom’s conventional structure of
male privilege” (Amkpa 62). The bared women are a striking contrast to the clothed men who
enter the scene: the naked and weaponless women face a contingent of men armed with spears.
Wordlessly, we are introduced to the dichotomy of male violence and female non-violence that
pervades Onwueme’s play. The lights fade on the face-off between Wazobia’s women and the
men who object to her rule.
The first movement does not center on Wazobia’s feelings as much as her explanation of
the situation that the community is in. This exposition reveals that Wazobia has been placed on
the throne after the death of the well-loved ruler of the kingdom of Anioma. The loss of Obi
Ogiso has left the community grief-stricken, but it has also left the people disunited and
quarrelsome. The most contentious subjects are the widows of the now-deceased ruler. The
only apparent point of agreement is that Wazobia is a controversial choice for ruler because of
her status in the community, her education, and her place as a woman. She has been divinely
placed on the throne of Anioma as temporary regent, a position that the majority of her
community originally supported in Parables (Onwueme 119). As the first movement progresses,
a livid Wazobia reveals that her rule has been contested because of the decisions she has made
while acting in the name of the king. Here we see that the disquiet of her reign is wearing on the
ruler—Wazobia’s moods are mercurial as she waivers between trepidation and temper. We
witness a ruler who has yet to come to terms with the meaning and extent of her power, unable to
decide if divine appointment gives her the right to continue to rule past the traditional regency
period of three years. While a female must hold power during the temporary regent position, a
king of Anioma must be male. Wazobia must shatter this tradition in order to ensure that her
decrees as regent are observed. Wazobia debates the wisdom of remaining on the throne,
infuriated that her reign is questioned because of her sex. She cries, “I, Wazobia am the

56
masquerade” (Onwueme 131). By exclaiming that she is the masquerade, Wazobia has named
herself the traditional male dancer of spiritual communion and wisdom —a prestigious religious
position that cannot be held by a woman. It is from this declaration of unorthodox power and her
desire to retain it that we begin our flashbacks into Wazobia’s rise to power and the controversy
that followed.
As the movements progress, we find that both men and women express their doubts about
Wazobia’s competency not solely because of her age or gender (though these are contributing
factors to her subjects’ doubt), but primarily because of her lineage and education. While some
of the members of the community find Wazobia’s powerful presence objectionable, she is more
universally resisted for her lack of wealth and status in the community before her rise to power.
Wazobia is the daughter of one of the poorest women in the community and has been well-
educated in Western-style schools established by the British colonists in the early twentieth
century (Van Allen 166). Wealth and involvement in the community are the two main markers
of status and prestige in the Igbo community; both lead to the creation of the “big man” or “big
women,” usually the elders of a community with considerable sway over community decisions
(167). The lack of both of these attributes works against Wazobia and her ascent to her current
position of power. The fact that Wazobia obtained her education outside of the community over
a period of years immediately sets her apart from the people of Anioma and the prominent men
and women who control many aspects of its political and social structure. The gods chose
Wazobia for the position of regent, an event in which the villagers rejoiced in Parables for A
Season. However, one direct result of her reign is that she no longer has the respect or the
blessing of half of her people. The most vocal of these dissenters are these “big men and
women” of Anioma, respected members of the community whose wisdom has been proven with
time and commitment to their fellows.
The Anioma people confirm their doubts when Wazobia immediately turns the
community on its ear by imposing a series of edicts: she forbids spousal abuse, removes the
requirement for women’s public, naked dances as a part of funeral rites, and declares that the
kingdom will provide an education to all villagers, male or female (Onwueme 131). Men and
women alike are opposed to these strange decrees for they did not expect a disquieting reign
from this regent, but rather a quiet period of rule before a male leader takes the throne (130).
Nevertheless, Wazobia sways the opinions of the women and a few men, one person at a time.

57
She encourages her women to stand in non-violent protest against ill treatment and in support of
Wazobia’s continued reign at the end of her three-year regent period. The women rally and the
play closes as it began, with the image of a swaying circle of women protecting their female
King by choice, not command (185). The audience is left with a burning question: what could
have inspired the men of Anioma to take arms against their women, and why are the women so
intent upon their resistance? Why is the village at war?

Female Power in Anioma


As Gilbert and Thompkins indicate in their text Postcolonial Drama, Wazobia and her
followers are not “super women who are above failure; nevertheless the staged women who do
succeed provide women in the audience with models for individual and collective action” (121).
Wazobia’s measures within the text are not fully successful. The play ends on a note of
unfinished conflict. At the end of the play, the community stands divided — women poised for
passive resistance, men poised for violence — as the lights fade on the world of the play. As an
audience, we do not know if Wazobia maintains her place as king or if she is unceremoniously
deposed and supplanted with one of the male plotters who seeks to usurp the throne. I do not
believe that Wazobia’s success in her ventures is the central focus of Onwueme’s discussion of
the conflict. Whether Wazobia wins or loses, whether her decrees are upheld or overturned, the
play has fulfilled its duty by sparking interest in the injustices which Wazobia and her woman
fight against. As Gilbert and Thompkins state, “theatre that contests the myth of women’s
compliance with patriarchal authority focuses attention on reviewing and renewing debate about
women’s roles within postcolonial cultures” (121). Here Onwueme has succeeded in providing
an impetus for both discussion and action, whether it is in a Nigerian society or a Western one.
Wazobia’s success or failure pales when we consider the purpose of the work as a whole.
As Gilbert writes, “Dramatising women as history’s central figures can be particularly
subversive in cultures which have always reserved for male elders both the power and
prerogative of public action” (120). By placing a female character in the position of powerful
heroine, Onwueme has subverted the very system that seeks to repress Wazobia. Calling
attention to the unequal status of women in conventional Igbo communities has allowed
Onwueme to call attention to the seemingly superior and often repressive role of men in these
small communities. Though Wazobia is not entirely successful in her efforts to change the

58
Anioma kingdom, her existence as a female ruler encourages us to reflect on power structures in
our own societies. We must ask what we can do to change our communities for the better.
What most intrigues me about Wazobia is her approach to change in her community.
Rather than slowly introducing new customs, Wazobia has chosen to modify women’s rights
within her community quickly and without an adjustment period for her subjects. Wazobia never
attempts to compromise or integrate her new laws slowly—she simply declares that the former
customs of her community are nullified and that her word is now the law. Movements two
through six are flash backs that lead us to the warlike conclusion of the play. In these
movements, we see that Wazobia never introduces a plan for progressive reform or allows her
people to debate the appropriateness of these proclamations for this particular community.
Wazobia’s royal deeds are disruptive as they create abrupt change in a community
preconditioned to oppose dramatic cultural shifts. This causes her subjects to resist her new laws
as a whole rather than listen to the reason behind each proclamation as an individual decision and
to weigh its value in their particular society. To the western audience, Wazobia’s desire to create
a culture of equality in Anioma is understandable, even admirable. However, we must
understand that Wazobia’s position comes with a responsibility toward her people. If she is to
achieve her goals, so she must remind herself of this responsibility. In philosopher Kwame
Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism, he describes the “two strands that intertwine [to form] the
notion of cosmopolitanism” (Appiah xv). The first strand is an obligation to others, obligations
that extend beyond family or nation, and the second strand is value of human life and “the
practices and beliefs that lend them significance” (xv). It is here that Wazobia fails in her goal to
create a contemporary society within her Igbo community. While she recognizes and strives to
fulfill her obligations to her fellow women, she often disregards the customs and practices that
have helped make them who they are and have helped make Wazobia who she is. By
disregarding these customs, disrespecting the ideas that they represent, Wazobia has enabled the
male populace to strike back at her royal decrees. She has driven fear into the hearts of many,
for the traditions she seeks to obliterate, while often unjust, are the foundations of daily life in
this community. Wazobia’s actions inspire the reader or the audience to ask why her decrees
could possibly fail, and how such conflict could have been avoided. What lessons can we take
away from Wazobia to use in our own struggles against injustice or repression?

59
The Conflict
The Reign of Wazobia calls together the women of Anioma as well as the women of
Nigeria, as shown through the composition of Wazobia’s name. The play focuses on Wazobia’s
proclamations for her kingdom, proclamations that are consistent with some of the most standard
principles of second-wave feminisms (www.cwluherstory.com), namely the abolition of spousal
abuse, the promotion of female education, and the de-objectification of women. Wazobia also
introduces goals from African womanisms, namely the equality of men and women, educational
and economic progress for the villages, and a society where all contribute to the well-being of
the community (Evwierhoma 4). What intrigues me about this piece is Wazobia’s use of the
conventions that place her upon the throne of the recently deceased King to achieve her own
ends. As a woman educated in a Western-style school, Wazobia is able to use these conventions
and local customs to gain footing for her own agenda. She continues to use the power these
conventions award her to disregard these very conventions that awarded her power in the first
place. Wazobia does not literally call women to bear arms, but rather seeks to enlighten the
women about the feminist and womanist issues the play confronts through logical public
discourse on the subject. Women turn to Wazobia because she is not attempting to wage
physical war against her community, but rather to enrich the lives of all of those under her
temporary dominion. Even Wazobia’s name invites the women of Nigeria to join her in the
crusade against feminine repression: Wa, Zo, and Bia literally mean “Come” in the three primary
languages of Nigeria, which are Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo (Ajayi 111). Wazobia has invited all
women of Nigeria to fight for what she believes are basic human rights, not to be denied by
convention, superstition, or common practices.
The above mentioned conflict between Wazobia’s desire to change her community and
the seemingly conventional ideas 8 of the native Igbo people are of particular interest to me
because of its roots in Nigeria’s history of British imperialism and the cultural practices that
emerged from colonization. Wazobia’s reign in her community is consistently complicated by
the older models of cultural practice that she cannot supplant without force. Her new position as
regent is disconcerting to this community not just because of her gender but because she is

8
By the phrase “seemingly conventional” I refer to British alterations of cultural practice during the colonial and
post-colonial era, specifically women’s loss of their marketplace rights and the forced adherence to Victorian
standards of female behavior. The British colonizers altered many of the customs of the Igbo several times over;
therefore the current customs bear little resemblance to the traditions they claim to represent.

60
attempting to change the cultural conventions it has followed for years. Her presence endangers
the current Igbo way of life with yet another threat of colonization through Western neo-
imperialist education. Wazobia embodies yet another threat of unwanted change. Though
Nigerian and Anioman, has become a representative of Western imperialism and influence as
much as she remains representative of the modern Nigerian woman. She is “Oyibo,” a turncoat
who left the community and has now returned in an attempt to rule its people (144). Wazobia
cannot operate solely as a woman of Anioma for she is now a part of the greater community of
Western educational ideals and Western political principles. It is this uncomfortable duality that
makes Wazobia’s power so difficult to wield with success. Her position as a woman of multiple
cultures creates the conflict between conventional Igbo practices and Wazobia’s “high-falutin”
ideas about women’s equality (Onwueme 143).
As stated in the introduction to this project, the idea of cultural convention is a central
part of my analysis of this play. I refer to the practices of the Igbo community as conventional
rather than “traditional” because the idea of tradition is, in itself, a construct of past British
colonization. Igbo cultural conventions are a mixture of pre-colonial traditions and colonial
influence on those same practices. Practices that were evolving in the nineteenth century were
irrevocably altered by British colonists in the twentieth century. Women’s power, which was
subordinate to men’s power even before colonization, was changed by Victorian ideas of
femininity and women’s roles in a society. Igbo women’s rights, such as running the household,
right to engage in commerce, and the right to earn an untaxed income were systematically
stripped and replaced with the Victorian image of the quiet and acquiescing life-mate of the
middle-class British home. In a postcolonial age, practices from pre-colonial and colonial Igbo
society have been melded into a series of new conventions that are neither wholly traditional nor
wholly superimposed on the fabric of Igbo society. Women’s authority, already insufficient, was
passed to newly appointed members of the Igbo community who reported directly to their British
oppressors (Van Allen 167). Recovery from these injustices is far from complete, as the memory
of the British-appointed leaders’ injustices has not faded from collective memory. Now as
Nigeria attempts to contemporize and join the world economic and political arena, it must still
struggle against theories and ideas that are viewed as neo-imperialist for fear of further
bastardization of their conventions and traditions.

61
In the introduction to this project, I wrote that in an Igbo society contemporary ideas such
as the feminist movement are disliked not for their content, but for their association with Western
ideology and therefore Western imperialism. As I stated in the introduction to this project,
Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka, a Nigerian-born scholar of women’s studies and gender issues in
African literature (www.womensstudies.ku.edu), states that there is considerable resistance to
conventional Western feminism in Nigerian societies. Such actions are akin to renouncing the
more conventional ideas of one’s home and becoming a product and promoter of the West itself.
If this is the case, how do we address ideas of feminisms and womanisms in a society set against
any form of neo-imperialism or further alteration of its cultural conventions? Ama Ata Aidoo, a
Ghanaian playwright and novelist who also concentrates on women’s histories, “has criticized
European feminists for becoming a new wave of imperialists eager to invade the African
continent brandishing a particular political doctrine while remaining blissfully ignorant of the
culture, history, and needs of individual groups of African women” (Gilbert 118). Onwueme
does not explicitly say whether she intends Wazobia to be a product of these neo-imperialists,
but the play text is vague enough that the reader may infer that Wazobia has not taken her
village’s beliefs fully into account. Even though Wazobia’s edicts promote the advancement of
the community as a whole, a desire that is more womanist than feminist, her changes seem ill-
timed for they directly interfere with significant rituals in a time of community transition and
political unrest. The Omu, the wisest woman of the kingdom, implies that this is a time 9 to
adhere to the conventions that have seen the kingdom through difficult times before.
I argue that Tess Onwueme strives to encourage change as articulated by feminists and
womanists while still respecting the integrity of Igbo values and practices as the community
develops. The Reign of Wazobia blends this respect for cultural convention with the
demonstration of modernization of the ethnic group in a way that allows the audience to see what
moderation could do for the kingdom. Wazobia is a woman who attempts to use the tools she has
been given, through education and a period of distance from her community, 10 to improve the
way of life for the women in her kingdom. She exploits the very system that limits her women to
liberate them. Wazobia speaks with royal authority (an authority that was granted by the gods),
calls community meetings to discuss the changes she implements, and conducts herself as a

9
Onwueme does not indicate when each movement takes place, but as movement two takes place at the beginning
of the flashback, we assume that this conversation takes place at the beginning of Wazobia’s reign.
10
This period of distance is the time Wazobia spent away from Anioma and in school.

62
male 11 in order to achieve her ends. Wazobia crushes her opposition with the logic of her
arguments and with the structural force of the customs that back them. As the village created the
laws and customs, they are hard pressed to refute Wazobia’s use of these customs, even if she is
subverting them through their use. The king uses the feminist ideals in tandem with socially-
granted power to support her radical edicts. Wazobia’s initial actions, while considered out of
place and unconventional by her subjects, are not abusive in nature: she does not seek to harm
her people in her rule, but rather to use the power and her knowledge of other world conventions
to help her people modernize while maintaining their identity. Even when the reader realizes
that Wazobia does not intend to relinquish her power at the end of her three season regency,
Onwueme implies that Wazobia will continue to use her power to improve her community and to
ensure that her changes are not allowed to disappear. Wazobia’s three primary decrees are
intended to change her village for the better, even if these decrees require significant adjustment
in the community. Wazobia genuinely believes that her edicts will improve the quality of life for
women, and therefore Igbo society as a whole.

Three Decrees
Wazobia’s first decree, just after the late King’s death, is that her women will not dance
naked at the funeral rites of the late King, the signal of the end of their mourning period. The
Omu explains, “It is our tradition that women who survive funeral rituals dance in the
marketplace as final mark of their innocence regarding their husband’s death. A woman who
dies mourning is unclean and must be left to rot in the evil forest” (Onwueme 143). Here the
Omu refers to the ritual that is customary in funeral rites observed by the Igbo of this
community. The dancing ritual was preceded by a ritual cleansing of the widows, who were
forced to live in semi-squalor and seclusion during the one-year mourning period, according to
Igbo scholar Ifi Amadiume. During this period, a widowed woman could not wash properly,
wear comfortable clothing, or support herself by selling wares at market (Amadiume 82). At the
end of the mourning period and after a ritual cleansing the widow’s brother-in-law becomes
responsible for her welfare. In this play, Wazobia takes responsibility for the widows who must

11
Though Wazobia is still physically a woman she has assumed a role that is by definition male by self-appointing
herself as a full ruler. As a king, Wazobia’s gender cannot be anything but male, for by law a female cannot rule
Anioma. This is a matter of some amusement to Wazobia’s dissenters, and they mockingly call her male throughout
the play.

63
then dance naked before the community to prove that they have survived the mourning period
and are not complicit in late Obi Ogiso’s death. Wazobia believes she is saving her women from
public judgment and objectification by forbidding this ritual exhibition. She proclaims, “My
women will not dance naked in public to appease the eyes of a wrathful populace. This is no era
for dancing to entertain lustful eyes” (Onwueme 143). While she may seek to protect the
widowed queens of Obi Ogiso from public humiliation, Wazobia also disregards the justification
for this dance. She forgets that if the women don’t dance, they will be bound by further cultural
conventions upon their death. 12 When Wazobia is reminded of this fact, she brushes the idea off
as nothing more than a superstition (Onwueme 143). Wazobia does not dwell on the
consequences of this action, and turns instead to convincing the women of Anioma that these
beliefs are mere superstitions.
While some may protest that Wazobia is impeding her community’s ability to practice its
own conventions, she is also taking into account the unfair nature of this ritual to women.
Though the naked, public dance is only the final stage of the mourning period, it is representative
of the mourning period as a whole, a period which the Igbo commonly view as punishment of the
female sex (Amadiume 82). I believe that Wazobia wishes to eradicate this convention not only
because her women are objectified and exhibited for all eyes to see, but because the mourning
ritual is based on the assumption that a woman is somehow responsible for her husband’s death.
Men are not forced to observe a mourning ritual. They may remarry soon after death, are not
“unclean” or forced into seclusion, and may continue to own businesses and earn a living (82).
The community does not view the man with ill-will after the death of a wife, but does view the
woman with “wrathful” eyes (Onwueme 143). A widow suffers great injustice and silent
accusations during the year of her mourning. Wazobia’s desire to do away with this convention
is understandable considering her educational background.
There is no community reaction to Wazobia’s proclamation because it is made in the
privacy of the throne room with only newly widowed queens in attendance. However, the Omu
reacts as representative of those who are older and more grounded in convention. She calls
Wazobia “Oyibo,” a Nigerian term derived from pidgin describing one who has left his or her
community and returned--an expatriate who condescends to return home and who still claims to

12
If a woman dies before she dances to prove her innocence in the manner of her husband’s death, she cannot
receive proper burial rites and her spirit will be doomed to remain on earth for all eternity. Her people assume that
her death is the result of her guilt (Amadiume 34).

64
be a part of her people (www.oyibosonline.com ). The use of the term Oyibo indicates that the
community has noticed and resented Wazobia’s absence from Anioma. As such, Wazobia is
now more closely associated with Western systems of belief among her own people. The Omu is
scandalized by Wazobia’s ideas and blatant disregard for her advice and objections. By taking
an active role in the progress of her community and using her status of King as law-maker, 13
Wazobia has successfully maneuvered around the Omu’s objections and backed her new decrees
with the conventions which the Omu is trying to uphold. These two women’s goals for the
community are quite similar and will eventually help them to unite on this political front. As a
member of the younger generation, Wazobia is not as bent on maintaining convention as the
older Omu: she speaks of making change happen and taking an active part in altering her
community (Onwueme 144). The Omu speaks of willing the hand of the clock to remain still
and maintaining the status quo — a goal which is diametrically opposed to Wazobia’s. While
Wazobia seeks radical change, Omu, who has lived long enough to see enough change forced
upon her people and to know of its consequences, seeks stability in Anioma. Each woman seeks
what is best for the community. Wazobia brings her experience as an outsider while Omu speaks
as an elder of the village. These women must work together to ensure that both sets of ideals are
honored, as each woman is equally interested in the welfare of the community but lacking the
knowledge and experience of the other.
Wazobia’s actions may be altruistic, but she fails to take into account the reaction of her
people and the women whom she protects. Only Ogiso’s widows hear Wazobia’s first decree.
For the most part these women respond favorably to the proclamation, though it is unclear
whether this is because they agree with Wazobia or simply wish to please her, considering the
suppliant position of most of the women upon Wazobia’s entrance and opening remarks (142).
The Omu’s objections are out of concern for the conventions of her people and for the safety of
the women involved. Failure to dance in the marketplace and prove their innocence could lead
to spiritual turmoil in the afterlife. While her concerns may be outdated, the Omu’s fears are
founded in a deep belief in the conventions of the community and fear of what this brisk change
will bring for the women involved (144). The foundation of her argument is that this is the
wrong time to implement changes, and that Wazobia is not considering the consequences of

13
As other characters call Wazobia “King” throughout the play and as Wazobia has all the power of a King,
Onwueme implies that the regency of Anioma bestows the regent with the powers of a monarch.

65
doing so (143). Though Wazobia is working for her community, she is moving her people
forward by privileging one idea over the other. The other members of her community view this
as another form of colonization because these are ideas that she discovered and developed while
away at a Western-styled school. I argue that the outdated ideas of the community are equally
colonial because the villagers have not had the opportunity to embrace new ideas, only the
opportunity to adapt to ideas forced upon them by outsiders with no understanding of Igbo
culture. While reprimanding a wife-beater, Onwueme shouts to a crowd that “For centuries men
have rule…misruled us” (150), referring to the centuries of misrule under both indigenous men
and the British-appointed community leaders who further subjugated women. A woman’s right
to protest abuse in her household was just one of the powers stripped by colonial rule (Van Allen
170).
Wazobia’s second decree is to abolish spousal abuse in her community. Here she again
uses convention to fend off an incensed and abusive husband who is chasing his battered and
bruised wife: the wife (who remains nameless) is able to claim sanctuary in the presence of the
King. Wazobia rushes to the woman’s defense and immediately summons all of Anioma (a
considerable geographic area) to a meeting in the square the next day. It is there that Wazobia
abolishes abuse once and for all, proclaiming that a man should not have to pound a woman like
a mortar pounds fufu, 14 and that they are equal partners in the community (Onwueme 153). As
equal partners, a man does not have the right to beat his wife any more than a wife should be
able to beat her husband. This is a new and progressive idea for a society so deeply rooted in its
patriarchal past.
Wazobia’s third proclamation follows the first in theme: she promotes female education,
declaring that all will have the right to an education from schools built within the community.
“We all, man, woman, child, must be schooled. […] Schools will be built to tutor women and
bring out the best of their potentials, to sharpen their awareness” (153). Wazobia stresses that all
will have access to schooling within the community, which will enrich the community as a
whole. Here Wazobia implements the African womanist idea of promoting education for all,
therefore providing more opportunities for the advancement of the community as a whole.

14
Fufu is a staple of the Igbo diet. It is most commonly made of yams, and is a starchy material that resembles
mashed potato. The process of making fufu requires grinding with mortar and pestle over a long period of time
(www.congocookbook.com).

66
Subsequent proclamations of equal right in both property ownership and representation in
rulership are dependent upon the education of the women of the Anioma kingdom.
It is clear from these two proclamations that Wazobia intends men and women to live
together as equals in this kingdom. She proclaims, “Henceforth the symbol of our kingdom shall
be the palm tree which from top to bottom has all and produces all: from leaves, to thatch, to
shade, to brown. From fruit, to wine, to oil, to kernel…” (154). This is not a coincidental choice
for a symbol, as the palm is the most important resource in Nigerian society—palm oil and palm
wine are mandatory in ritual ceremony, and men and women alike sell the parts and products of
the palm to fund their households (Van Allen 168). Here Wazobia has transformed her kingdom
into a community where all are equal producers with equal respect.
Naturally, there are men in the crowd who object to Wazobia’s high-handed measures.
Two of the most powerful men in the community, Idehen and Iyasa, begin to plot against
Wazobia in order to stop her from making more changes to their community. However, with the
double proclamation Wazobia gains the trust of the women in the kingdom, including the wise
and influential Omu. “With or without men, [the women will] make meaning out of [their
lives]” (Onwueme 164). Wazobia does not want war with men, but for women to stand on equal
footing with them and to have meaningful, enriched lives.
Interestingly enough, Wazobia herself is unable to reap the rewards of her hard-earned
success. As King, Wazobia has been redefined. She exists in a state of uncertain gender
throughout the entire play, physically female but male in function and position. The purpose
behind re-gendering the regent monarch is not known, nor do we understand the reason for such
the reassignment of gender. Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka has suggested that this re-gendering
process may either be a political ploy to show the ineptitude of women to rule or a way to give
women a taste of power without fear of them taking a permanent position in political life (Ajayi
114), though she states the scholars do not know the origins of this tradition in Igbo
communities. In Parables for A Season, the Anioma people observe this tradition to avoid
angering the gods, who will not allow a woman to rule outright (Onwueme 110). Regardless,
Wazobia is hereafter referred to as King, not Queen as that title is reserved for her wives. At the
beginning of the second movement of the piece, Onwueme’s stage directions indicate that
“Wazobia inherits all the royal regalia of the late king, and from now on she can appear in
public only in these royal outfits. On no occasion should she be dressed any longer as a woman”

67
(Onwueme 141). Wazobia’s place as regent means that she is renamed as male, though this is
not to say the transition is unnoticed. 15 Men consistently correct themselves, belatedly
exchanging the word she for he in a deliberate attempt to embarrass the monarch (Onwueme
155). Indeed, it seems that Wazobia is the most conscious of this change, for she is the only
character in the text to consistently refer to herself as male or kingly.
I argue that this gender change serves to distance Wazobia from her actions as monarch.
Movement four’s proclamations pertaining to spousal abuse, education, and funerary rituals will
not apply to Wazobia or her family (144). Wazobia’s abusive father is no longer in the picture
and makes no appearance in the story other than a brief mention of his abusive ways. It is
Wazobia’s father who is accused of pounding his wife as a mortar pounds fufu (138). Wazobia’s
poverty-stricken mother must live in exile for the duration of the reign, after which Wazobia
must also go into exile. In the third movement, Queen Wa explains that custom dictates that a
king must have “neither mother nor father. If any parent lives, he or she must go on some kind
of exile. It’s no news that a king’s parents must give way” (138). Without familial presence in
the community, Wazobia’s proclamations do not serve her immediate family or herself. The
distance between Wazobia and her decrees allows the audience to believe that Wazobia is not
acting selfishly or to gain additional power, but because she truly wants to liberate her fellow
women from some of the many inequalities that have existed since before colonization. This is
not a simple school girl applying her lessons to life, but an impassioned woman working toward
a better life for her community. The conflict that arises from Wazobia’s changes is linked
directly to the patriarchal system that repressed both Wazobia and her mother, but by providing
the women of Anioma with what she did not have as a child Wazobia does not directly serve
herself. As altruistic as her intent may be, Wazobia’s reign is endangered because she attempts
to change both the colonial and pre-colonial conventions that have forced women into an inferior
position in the community, and she attempts these changes too quickly. By forcing change so
quickly and with so little warning, Wazobia has upset the day-to-day operations of this Igbo
village as well as the special rituals observed in times of crisis or grief.
Wazobia poses a threat because her proclamations will change the way of life in her
community. Her proclamations will radically redistribute power, shifting the culture from one

15
One should note that as King, Wazobia does not hold the sexual rights of the typical Igbo husband—her wives are
such in name only.

68
that deeply privileges men over women to one in which women are the equals of men. This shift
will undo the current power structure, stripping power from those who fought to gain it after
decolonization. What Wazobia fails to do is introduce her proclamations in a gradual manner,
allowing both the men and women of her community to adjust to and embrace the ideas. The
three primary decrees, adjustment of funerary rites, eradication of spousal abuse, and education
of females are somewhat foreign concepts to the Anioman people. Wazobia does not explain
that these changes will create a more equal society or that they will improve community
productivity and harmony. Because Wazobia fails to justify her actions to her people, she cannot
explain that her changes are necessary and important; rather, they appear to be the whim of a
ruler who has overstepped her rights as a new leader. Wazobia’s decrees seem to make no sense
to Idehen, Iyase and the other dissenters, who find her edicts both inappropriate and ridiculous.
Iyase quips, “Perhaps this morning, our king has taken a shot of gin too many. It may be
necessary for him…” (149). Though Iyase actively covets Wazobia’s position in society, his
comments draw others to his aid in opposing her rule. Wazobia’s vision for a better future, a
kingdom filled with “human beings with potentials waiting to be actualized for the benefit of this
kingdom” (149), is not shared by all. Because her ideas are perceived as foreign, her subject’s
reactions tend to be doubtful at best, scathing at worst (149).
Wazobia, like many leaders, chooses to rule by unexplained decree. This is reminiscent
of both the British-appointed leaders of the colonial years and of the brutish leaders that followed
for a time afterward. Oddly, Wazobia’s distance has not allowed her to take into account the
reactions of her people and their perception of her royal decrees. Wazobia’s position as both
regent and representative of the Western-influenced world has placed her in a tenuous position
that creates the conflict that carries us through the play. Onwueme’s text is an extreme example
of the repercussions of implementing change quickly, for Wazobia has reinforced the Anioma
men’s fears that Western ideals and cultural change threaten and damage their identities within
the community and strip them of personal power.
When I read it carefully, I believe that The Reign of Wazobia is hyperbole. Wazobia’s
extreme reign calls the audience to awareness. The place serves as a warning against the violent
privileging of one set of ideals over another. Wazobia rules her community with the best of
intentions and near disastrous results. The play ends with men and women ready to shed blood
to support their beliefs (new and old) and unable to peacefully find a path for both sets of ideas

69
to coexist. We do not know if the community ever resolves its conflict, or if Anioma settles its
differences though physical violence. We know only that Wazobia’s best attempts to inspire
change in her community bring her people to the brink of warfare. We leave Wazobia and her
people as we found them, opposing sides poised for war. The spectator must choose an ending
for the piece, contemplate whether Wazobia’s choices for her people are feasible for her
kingdom, and analyze whether a radical redistribution of power could create such animosity in
any society.

70
CONCLUSION

As I find my time with Prodigal Daughters coming to a close, I have come to the
conclusion that I cannot in such a short project fully understand Onwueme’s women or their
communities. I began my research into The Broken Calabash, Parables for A Season, and The
Reign of Wazobia with very little understanding of Africa, Nigeria, or the Igbo. I have
broadened my knowledge of the customs of the Igbo and the history of Nigeria by reading the
research of others, not through personal experience. As a western woman, I feel as though I only
know half of the story: these women have stories that I do not yet understand.
In my introduction I felt the need to examine the historical background of Nigeria,
particularly during the years of British colonialism and the country’s subsequent independence
from imperial rule. I focused my attentions primarily on women’s struggles during this time, but
found that the troubles of women could not be separated from those of Nigerian men. I was
forced to reevaluate what it meant to live under colonial rule as an Igbo man or woman, and
found that the stories that Onwueme presents in her trio of plays suddenly went much deeper
than I’d originally thought. I revised my original topic of Onwueme’s plays as a “feminist call to
arms” and found myself instead studying the conflict between education, women, and fears of
imperialism that have never faded. Feminist, womanist, postcolonial, and critical works
informed my reading and interpretation of Onwueme’s three plays.
The Broken Calabash introduced the conflict of the play, but also introduced me to one of
the lesser practiced traditions of the Igbo culture; the Idgebe practice. While this tradition is
central to the plot of the play, I found myself more drawn to the conflict between father and
daughter. Miscommunication between generations proved to be the enemy of Cortuma and Ona
in this particular piece, dividing the father-daughter duo and rendering them incapable of coming
to an understanding on the matter of Ona’s fate as an Idgebe. As in all three of Onwueme’s
plays, the miscommunication was not resolved. Rather, Ona’s desire to subvert the customs that
suppress her results in rash statement and the death of her father.
Parables for A Season continued the story of the educated Igbo woman, though Ona’s
individual story remains firmly bound within Calabash. Parables introduced me to Anehe, Zo,
and Bia, three women who are representative of the different paths to female power within a
traditional Igbo society. I was surprised at how very apt the play’s title was, for divine

71
intervention did indeed reward the woman whose actions could be considered most moral.
Wazobia created herself from the women who surrounded her and became a symbolic figure of a
united Nigeria, taking power to promote the welfare of her community.
The Reign of Wazobia is perhaps the most interesting of the three plays I studied as it
included many characters from Parables. I expected a continuation of Wazobia’s story and was
not disappointed. While the storylines are incongruous and some of the plot points do not match,
as a whole the play shows Wazobia as an admirable leader, but a human one. Divinely
appointed or not, Wazobia makes mistakes during her reign. Her actions serve as an example to
both eastern and western audiences that change does not come easily. It is just as easy to destroy
a society as it is to improve it. Once again, Onwueme left us wondering how the community
would fare.
I have learned a great deal from my time with Onwueme’s women. I believe that my
research on the traditions of Igbo society and the historical background of colonial Nigeria have
better informed me about the challenges the Igbo encounter every time they try to change their
communities. I also believe that my close examination of these three works has served to
complicate my understanding of the link between culture and history. My ideas of tradition now
allow for the fact that custom is not static, but ever changing. The very amorphous nature of
cultural practice makes me question appeals to tradition in almost any context, whether it be in a
Nigerian community or in an American suburb.
In particular, this project has opened up questions about scholarly or theoretical
approaches to work by individuals from cultures not my own. As a mixed-heritage, American
woman I find that I am able to relate in some small part to the struggles that Onwueme’s
characters encounter. I sympathize with the desire to rail against the alteration of traditions,
especially when those practices provide emotional security to those who practice them.
However, as I am a product of changing viewpoints I find that I also sympathize with
Onwueme’s heroines, most particularly Wazobia.
Future research on this material may concentrate on the tradition of re-gendering a female
monarch. Why is a female unable to hold power in her society; why is Wazobia re-gendered?
Wazobia’s status as a male gendered, female sexed character within the play raises interesting
questions about maleness in power. How does Wazobia perform this maleness, and how does it
aide in her in the goal of changing her community? How does operating as a male challenge

72
Wazobia in her position as King, and how can we link this gender performance to the power
performances of non-fictional female leaders in contemporary society? Is Wazobia
representative of the trend toward masculinity in the woman-leader, or is this phenomenon found
solely in the female Igbo regent? I hope to extend my research into this trio of plays by
Onwueme by continuing my exploration of Nigerian and Igbo cultural practices. Such work will
be informed by the knowledge of native literary scholars, anthropologists, and sociologists
whose experiences may enlighten this western reader about the views of another culture.
It is with some regret that I leave Tess Onwueme’s prodigal daughters. I relish the
thought of returning to them again as a better informed western woman than I was when I began
this project. It is also my hope that these women will continue to whisper their secrets from the
pages of these inspired plays, and that their battles will continue to inspire me to examine my
own cultural and political experiences.

73
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BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH

Kimi D. Johnson grew up in San Antonio, Texas and attended college in her home town
at Trinity University. She earned her BA in 2005 and it was her work at Trinity that sparked
Kimi’s interest in pursuing a graduate degree in theatre studies. She attended Florida State
University to continue her education in the Fall of 2005. Kimi is currently completing her
requirements for her MA in Theatre Studies and is teaching theatre and debate at Clara Driscoll
Middle School in San Antonio. In the Fall of 2008 she will begin work on her PhD in Theatre
Historiography and Criticism at the University of Minnesota.

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