There is a danger in Tayo Aluko’s play, it springs from the fact that at its heart lies a certain irony – if not paradox. The story carries a restrained polemic against the history of post-colonial prejudice through the (real) life of a man, Tunji Sowande, a Nigerian who managed to succeed in the British legal establishment in the face of the bare-faced racism prevalent in all strata of society in the 1950s and rose to become the country’s first black head of chambers and, subsequently, first black judge.
This one-man show, performed by the writer – with an onstage pianist, Philip Blandford, has songs which thread through the piece, illustrating as they do Sowande’s first love – music. The atmosphere is for the most part congenial, delivered with the comfortable, measured pace of a lawyer anxious for exactitude in unpacking the salient details and passions of a life well-lived.
Most of the time beaming genially, passion is nevertheless injected in the person of a friend, an African activist who fulminates against the post colonial meddling of European powers who little understand the tribal and ethnic divisions that will come to hobble the incipient democracies intended as a lasting legacy.
There is a noticeable step change in mood when the narrative leads into talking about cricket. The spine of the piece is a metaphor based on the game, which stands both for what may be considered as worthy about British culture (‘You get a nick, you walk’) at the same time as revealing its shortcomings. The most notable and lyrical passage in this respect brings together cricket and music as he rounds out the story of the Basil D’Oliveira episode in international cricket – which landed the MCC in a hypocritical mess in the late 1960s as they dithered over the question of his inclusion in the England team due to play South Africa – with a song about how it feels to be free. This following England’s highly symbolic defeat of his country of birth which had become disfigured by apartheid. Elsewhere he muses on the reasons, with some sadness, that the game had firmly established itself in the Caribbean, but not in his native Nigeria..
The picture that emerges is of a modest man, an intellectual, genial, thoughtful, kind, generous; a fully rounded man who fought against injustice without spleen, but with dignity and certainty.
And the danger I mentioned? Well lest we are careful not to be too smug by comparison to 50’s America where racism could take a more lethal form, we could become complacent and, rather like not finishing your course of antibiotics as is urged, the virus is not destroyed, but comes back stronger, more devious than before.
The play and performance stand as an ingenious, novel and compelling statement of one of society’s most persistent ills. ★★★☆☆ Graham Wyles 17th January 2016