Brilliant new play about David Oluwale

February 18, 2009 — Comment

Written by Harmit Athwal

A new play on David Oluwale, which opened recently at West Yorkshire Playhouse, is a must-see dramatisation of Kester Aspden’s book on David’s life and brutal death at the hands of Leeds police officers.

David Oluwale was a Nigerian migrant whose body was pulled from the River Aire in Leeds in May 1969. His death came after a campaign of harassment by two Leeds police officers. He had arrived in the UK in September 1949 and was imprisoned for twenty-eight days for stowing away on the boat that brought him. Over the next twenty years, David was to experience brutality and racism at many hands. He spent ten years (in two stays as the only Black patient) in Menston Asylum, receiving ‘treatment’ in the form of ECT and ‘heavy duty’ anti-psychotic drugs. After his release he lived mainly on the streets of Leeds where he became ‘blood sport’ for two officers who singled him out for abuse – physical, verbal and mental.

In the play we see the story through David’s eyes and those of Detective Chief Superintendent John Perkins, the obsessive Scotland Yard officer tasked with investigating his suspicious death. The play is set around a grim subject – a brutal death at the hands of the state and its officers- but explores other themes too, such as the way that society shatters the dreams of new migrants coming to the ‘motherland’ and how a city like Leeds progresses to a major metropolis.

The interaction between David and Perkins adds an interesting and unexpected angle to the play. You wonder what motivated Perkins to be so conscientious and thorough (and to commit career suicide). It is an act of policing and investigation (into a Black death in custody) that has never been seen since. It is well known and significant that the police officers (Inspector Geoff Ellerker and Sergeant Ken Kitching), prosecuted for their involvement in the death of the David Oluwale, were the first and last to be successfully prosecuted for involvement in a Black death in custody. There has been no justice for the family of Joy Gardner. No justice for the family of Christopher Alder. No justice for the family of Mikey Powell.[1] The commitment shown by Perkins is quite unusual and the play should be compulsory viewing in the training of staff for the Independent Police Complaints Commission which now investigates deaths in police custody.

The sheer range of emotions that the audience experiences during the play – sadness, amusement, shock, outrage and anger – are a testament to the sensitive adaptation by Oladipo Agboluaje and the excellent stage production by Dawn Walton of Eclipse Theatre. The overall production is very good but of particular note are performances by Daniel Francis as the hopeful David Oluwale who descends into despair and mental illness, Steve Jackson as the thoroughly dislikeable racist police officer Ken Kitching and Ryan Early as the committed Perkins.

We see and feel David’s gradual descent from a hopeful young adventurer to a man wracked by the demons of mental illness. A scene which shows the ECT ‘treatment’ that he received at Menston hospital is as harrowing and shocking as the blatant verbal and physical abuse from his fellow homeless and, of course, Ellerker and Kitching.

You may think this sort of thing cannot still happen. But it does. Is the story of David Oluwale relevant? Yes it is. Numerous young Black men have died at the hands of the police since 1969, deaths involving the use of brutal force and abuse. And a Leeds community worker tells me that no destitute asylum seeker would stay at a central Leeds hostel because of the ‘welcome’ they receive, like David’s.

There are many parallels in the play between how David was treated and the way society now treats new migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. There are many thousands left destitute and living on the street, like David, at the mercy of a society that does not care for them and resents them even being here. The play is a lesson for us all and a fitting tribute to the forgotten memory of David Oluwale that was resurrected first by Kester Aspden and now by the Eclipse Theatre, a Black-led company.

The play begins with the Chief Constable telling Perkins that ‘presenting a good image is vital to our work’. These words could have been spoken today by West Yorkshire Police which is, somewhat ironically, supporting the campaign for a permanent memorial in David’s memory.

Related links

View a flyer for the The Hounding of David Oluwale

Watch a trailer for The Hounding of David Oluwale on YouTube

Eclipse Theatre

Read a review of the The Hounding of David Oluwale by Kester Aspden

David Oluwale – memorial appeal

IRR Factfile: Black deaths in custody

[1] Police officers have faced various charges in connection with the deaths of Joy Gardner, Christopher Alder and Mikey Powell in police custody. In all three, the officers involved were acquitted of all charges. With numerous other Black deaths in custody the Crown Prosecution Service has decided there was not not enough evidence to prosecute. The Hounding of David Oluwale is on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 21 February 2008 and the travels to: Birmingham Repertory Theatre (25-28 February); Liverpool Playhouse (3-7 March); The New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich (11-14 March); Hackney Empire (24-28 March); Northcott Theatre, Exeter (17-21 March) and Nottingham Playhouse (31 March-4 April).

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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