The Hounding of David Oluwale

The Hounding of David Oluwale
is the emotional new play from Eclipse Theatre, which is adapted from Kester Aspden’s 2007 book investigating the life, tragic death and subsequent search for justice for Nigerian immigrant, David Oluwale.

The life and untimely death of David Oluwale has been re-invigorated by Kester Aspden’s investigation and publication, The Hounding of David Oluwale. Aspden weaves the story of Oluwale into the narrative of the development of Post-War Leeds, from the home of the textile industry and back to back houses to “Leeds: Motorway City of the Seventies” with its shopper’s precinct and motorways interlinking it to the rest of the UK, as an epicentre of modernity.

Oluwale travelled from Lagos, Nigeria to England as a stowaway in 1949 with the ambition of becoming an engineer. What greeted Oluwale in England were tough Post-War times, especially for black immigrants. In June 1953, just four years after he arrived in England, Oluwale was involved in a Saturday night scuffle. He was subsequently detained in Menston Asylum for almost eight years. Upon his release, Oluwale’s friends had moved on with their lives and he had no family to help him make the transition back to everyday life. Instead he found himself forced onto the streets of Leeds, where he became the only homeless black man at the time. Oluwale did not fit the city’s new, glowing and modern aesthetic and he became the victim of a campaign of police brutality. On 4 May 1969, Oluwale’s bruised and swollen body was discovered by a group of boys in the River Aire in Leeds. Oluwale’s violent death was set to cause a storm, when Leeds City Police was subject to an investigation resulting in criminal charges for two of its police officers.

In the 40th anniversary of Oluwale’s death, Eclipse Theatre is set to bring their timely adaptation to theatres around the UK, including its debut at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, followed by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich.

The ethos of Eclipse Theatre is to develop the profile of black British theatre and its practitioners by producing and touring high quality work to existing audiences, while also encouraging new audiences. Eclipse Theatre’s previous productions include Moon on a Rainbow Shawl by Errol John (2003), Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht, adapted by Oladipo Agboluaje (2004), Little Sweet Thing by Roy Williams (2005), Three Sisters by Anton Chekov, adapted by Mustapha Matura (2006) and Angel House by Roy Williams (2008). This commitment to discovering and nurturing new talent is reinforced by Dawn Walton, the newly appointed Artistic Director, she says: “What is exciting about working with Eclipse is that the work tours, with a lot of quality black work, a lot of people don’t get to see it. It will be on for a few weeks in a theatre in one city and by the time the audience hears about it, it has gone. With Eclipse we are able to take the work out to as many cities as possible.”

The Hounding of David Oluwale includes the 20 years of Oluwale’s life from when he left Lagos, full of hopes and dreams to his death and the posthumous fight for justice. Aspden’s book interlinks Oluwale’s life with that of Leeds and other immigrants from West Africa, placing his life and experiences and clashes with institutions in a social and political context. Oladipo Agboluaje’s adaptation concentrates on the life of Oluwale, returning him to the centre of the story. “If we think of Leeds as a microcosm of Britain at the time, then we see how political policy filters down to the street. What you start with are policies about building cities and creating shopping centres, offices and the brightness of new cities, but of course what they forgot in those policies were the people.”

City centre living became a thing of the past, as people moved out into the suburbs, the only people left in the city centre were the homeless and the police were responsible for moving them on to maintain the “cleanliness” of the city. “I think what happened in this case is that two officers took that policy to the extreme and that coupled with their own hatred for David, their misunderstanding and racism for a black man in particular. They singled David out and so this catalogue of torture began.” The wider context of Oluwale’s story is that of all immigrants at the time, who faced a slammed door when searching for accommodation, or a “colour bar” in various pubs around Leeds.

The Hounding of David Oluwale follows a non-linear structure and moves from main locations in Oluwale’s life — from Lagos to Leeds. This enables the audience to take a panoramic view of Oluwale’s life and distils his experiences over the 20 year period into a cohesive narrative. “The story is told in a non-linear fashion, and it goes back and forth through time as we start to unravel David’s life — not the perceived problem, but the actual man himself to see where he came from, what his ambitions were and how they were slowly eroded until he reached his final days. Then we go past his death and into the final fight for justice.”

Throughout his life in England, Oluwale was a casualty of the policies of a variety of instiutions from the mental health system to the police. As a black man it was difficult for him to get into hostels and people dismissed him because of his criminal record. Oluwale ended up in a situation where the policies of different institutions colliding, led to a sequence of events resulting in his demise, which should not have happened. It is especially poignant as his plight took place in the burgeoning years of the Welfare State. “David went to Citizens Advice and many other institutions to try and get help, and he remained active throughout his life. Worst of all because he was pushed into the mental health system for an extraordinarily long length of time, unjustifiably one could argue, he was viewed differently when he went into institutions for help. It was like a wall of institutions, that all played their small part unwittingly in crushing one man.”

The campaign for justice for David Oluwale in the early 1970s came against a backdrop of changing methods in policing, from the local bobby on the beat to the rise of the infamous Panda car. The search for justice began with a cadet in Leeds City Police, Gary Galvin, who blew the whistle on Geoffrey Ellerker and Kenneth Kitching, the police officers who had harassed and assaulted Oluwale from August 1968 to April 1969 and were implicated in hounding him to his untimely death. Ellerker and Kitching were never convicted of the manslaughter charges they faced due to the lack of evidence, particularly eyewitness evidence about when and how Oluwale ended up in the River Aire. Both Ellerker and Kitching were found guilty of assaults on Oluwale. “This isn’t a story about vilifying the police, what we are saying is that there was thinking at the time that allowed certain behaviour to happen overtly. We wanted to tell the most rounded point of view on this issue and to look at all sides of the story. We will see the officers and the pressures that some of them are under, either to carry on the way they are, or to break ranks and step outside of that. It is significant that it was somebody new in the police who broke ranks. Another character that is important in the production is DCS Perkins, who came up from Scotland Yard to investigate and again is an outsider to the city. He was obsessive in his pursuit for justice. Perkins was the first man, even though he never knew David, who related to him as a person, rather than a problem in the city, and that’s what is extraordinary about it.”

The Hounding of David Oluwale is a dramatisation of events, which happened nearly 40 years ago, but still maintain a searing contemporary relevance from the Stephen Lawrence public enquiry that resulted in the Macpherson Report in 1999, which concluded that there was institutionalised racism in the police to the search for justice for Jean Charles De Menezes in 2008. The play allows audiences to gain an insight into David Oluwale’s life and the incremental destruction of a human being, who was unjustly vilified and hounded. David Oluwale is a name everyone should know and his is a story that no one should forget.

The Hounding of David Oluwale was on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds from 31 January – 21 February 2009.

Shona Fairweather