TAYO ALUKO talks to Len Phelan about Just an Ordinary Lawyer, his show about the legal eagle and cricket buff who became Britain’s first black judge
Your new show about Nigerian-born Tunji Sowande looks at the history of Western imperialism and black liberation struggles worldwide and, through words and song, ventures into that explosive world in which sport — particularly cricket — and politics collide. Your other highly acclaimed work is about the towering figure of Paul Robeson, whose achievements have been somewhat airbrushed from history in this country and the US and Sowande’s achievements, though on a smaller scale, are relatively unrecognised too. Do you have a sense of mission in bringing such figures back to public attention?
In Sowande’s case, it’s not so much the figure himself but the stories that can be told through him. He doesn’t compare with Robeson in prominence and achievement — who does? — and while I tell a bit of his life story, he is really a vehicle through whom I can highlight the achievements of past fighters for freedom, equality and justice, and the mechanics and mechanisms of imperialism and colonialism.
I understand that Sowande was not a political man, so in the play I have put him in the position of “an interested observer” of very interesting things.
How did you go about creating the production?
The first thing that drew me to Sowande was the fact that he was a singer and I felt that, as with Call Mr Robeson, this was a great opportunity to tell stories using the particular talent that I had.
Sowande was very different from Robeson, however.
According to the people I interviewed — his family and work colleagues — he was definitely not an active socialist and was more interested in music and sports.
I carried on researching stories of empire and struggle and assembling a number of them I wanted to tell but couldn’t see how they could be told through this man, who presented something of an Establishment sensibility.
Two things happened after I had wrestled with this conundrum for a while. I came across the story of Basil D’Oliveira [the mixed-race cricketer whose exclusion from the MCC touring team to apartheid South Africa caused a public outcry in 1968] and then a character literally introduced himself to me in the writing process. He was another Nigerian, a radical activist who “spouted” the socialist message, often to the irritation of my protagonist.
A crucial element in the creation of the piece was working, in addition to a good director, with a dramaturge who interrogated and even crossexamined the script to make sure that the personal and the emotional side of the man’s story came through sufficiently to make the politics believable and palatable. The choice and placement of the music was also very important and, as a whole, I feel it works well.
Sowande came from Nigeria to study law in this country and you followed a similar path. Are there particular elements of his experience that reflect your own — his love of cricket, his singing abilities and his struggle to make his mark as a black person in an overwhelmingly white profession?
There are similarities. He went to the same school as I did in Lagos, played cricket there, he sang, and I became an architect — a “respectable” profession.
Our backgrounds are similar and I would have experienced prejudice at a lower level of intensity than he did. I am no “first anything” in British architectural circles, thankfully.
Saying that, I was the first black member of the exclusive Athenaeum gentlemen’s club in Liverpool for a few years. I joined it largely because I found out that I could inherit the membership share — No 2 — which had belonged to William Roscoe, the founding vice-president and, most importantly, an Abolitionist.
I’m no longer a member, for affordability reasons.
Why do you feel it important to produce a work on Britain’s colonialist past at this time? Does that history have any echoes in the present?
I think British people and the people around the world are largely ignorant about the facts and of the part that this ignorance plays in feeding racism.
I see the play as a contribution to the education required to combat this state of affairs, most obviously with the racism surrounding some people’s reasons for wanting Brexit.
One of the themes of the play is how sports’ people can bring social injustices to national and international attention — the D’Oliveira Affair and the 1968 Mexico Olympics black power salute are among them.
The contexts within which of each of these episodes were played out, which they directly addressed, are mirrored today in different parts of the world. Being reminded of them will, I hope, be inspiring to today’s audience.
What’s been the responses of audiences to the show so far?
At the Edinburgh fringe festival, where I premiered it in August, I got excellent reviews and audience numbers were very good too. More importantly, so has been the audience response.
One of my favourite quotes came on a feedback form from a young Nigerian woman. “I learned more about black history from your show than my entire secondary school education,” she said. That’s really satisfying.
What do you want them to come away with at the production’s conclusion?
New knowledge, an appreciation of people who fought for us in the past, inspiration and determination for us to continue the struggles for ourselves and for those coming behind us.
And, importantly, an appreciation of the power of art which, as Robeson said, is a weapon against oppression.
You live in Liverpool. Is there anything about it as a place which has inspired or nurtured you in your work?
Yes. Coming to Liverpool in 1989, almost by accident, landed me in one of the centres of transatlantic slavery and empire.
It was a blessing for me to find myself in a city that had so much world history waiting to be discovered — a unique place to pick up a lot of knowledge and to be inspired by its tradition of radicalism.
It might not be an exaggeration to say that if I hadn’t ended up doing my final degree in Liverpool, staying, and even suffering the relatively mild racism that contributed to my giving up architecture, I would not be doing what I am doing today. And I wouldn’t have had the great fortune to learn some great stories and share them around the world.
Just an Ordinary Lawyer runs from January 11-28 at Theatro Technis, 26 Crowndale Road, London NW1, box office: theatrotechnis.com