One of the honours of packing up your bags for a while, forgetting the steamy hot sweat of the city where no one has anything on their mind with perhaps the exception of the oncoming football season or the complexities of the latest England cricket score, is arguably heading off to the other capital of culture in the U.K. and immersing yourself completely in the Edinburgh Fringe. It is at the Fringe where some of Liverpool’s much loved actors and performers find themselves and test out new material for the first time, where they experience every crush, every agonising line of perplexed worry on the face of the audience and the thrill of delight that sits in the deepest heart when the play, the song or the joke is appreciated fully and with respect.
For Tayo Aluko the respect is unwavering, it is the play in which he presents at Edinburgh and at the Liverpool Playhouse Theatre Studio which has gathered incredible attention. Not that this should be a surprise to anyone, for the actor is a genuine spirit, a man of great depth and simmering, shining personality who seems to grow in stature each time you talk to him. Just An Ordinary Lawyer received incredible reviews from this year’s Fringe, as well as one from Liverpool Sound and Vision which was the first publication to have the honour of doing so and it is a play that should be seen as one of the must see performances of this season’s theatre calendar in Liverpool.
The play is seen from the eyes of noted lawyer and eventual Crown Court Judge Olatunji Sowande, a man of dignity and aspiration who left his native Nigeria to come to the U.K. and in the process became a member of the M.C.C. and was at the heart of observing the racial inequalities that pervaded after World War Two.
Catching up with Tayo Aluko is no mean feat, for the actor is preparing to go out on the road again as soon as he steps foot in his home town of Liverpool as he takes his notable and outstanding play Call Mr. Robeson to America before coming to the Playhouse Studio to present the terrifically written Just An Ordinary Lawyer in October. With just a window of opportunity in the actor’s diary, we meet in the café of the Everyman Theatre and as August’s last whimsical sighs are heard echoing around the artistic quarter, we talk of cricket, the play and how one of the great American entertainers has been slowly shadowed out of history.
Welcome back from Edinburgh!
Tayo: “Thank you, I’m glad to be back. I’m so glad I went, it was a tremendous success, I got some excellent reviews for my new play, a good one for the old one and got some good media coverage that was podcast, radio interview and I’ve only just seen that my interviewer has picked it out as one of his ten top interviews during the whole month!”
That must be very exciting for you?
Tayo: “It’s very satisfying!”
It was an amazing play, if anything more successful than your previous one last year, perhaps even more deeply personal?
Tayo: “I think so, yes, definitely so, because the guy I was playing was a Nigerian, had been to the very same school that I had been to – 60 years before me or so, played cricket, sang – all the things which I did so it was though he was waiting for me, chosen me to tell his story. The funny thing is, is that I felt the same about Paul Robeson that he had actually sent someone to me to tell his story. So the show wasn’t just about me telling his story, it was about using him as a vehicle to tell bigger stories about Africa and it’s turned out to be the perfect format for trying to get across the information I would like to get across.”
You have a distinctive, wonderful habit of happening upon men of valour shall I say and telling their stories as you did with Paul Robeson and Olatunji Sowande and he has such an exotic tale to tell, the fact that he left Nigeria to come to England, I won’t spoil it but it might still baffle some as to why he did it and his fondness for cricket and the great Basil D’Oliveira who was playing in England, to my mind it wasn’t a welcoming time.
Tayo: “Not that he would have known that before he had left. I think I tried to portray him being full of optimism when he left Nigeria for a better place and when he got there he confronted the racism that was there at the time which was more overt than it is now but he just did his thing and he went ahead and decided to pursue the dream that he had come to pursue and actually succeeded, maybe beyond his expectations. It was probably unlikely that he thought that when he left in 1945 that he would end up being a judge, which he did. So that was remarkable and as you say, he was a man of valour, fought like everyone else but his story of determination, not just to succeed but to help others for me is very inspiring and that’s why for me it’s a kind of story I like to tell.”
Was it very different to the way that you had to prepare for Call Mr. Robeson, was that a different sense of writing?
Tayo:“ I think in the sense that it was very clear right from the start that when I first heard about Olatunji Sowande that his life story on its own was not sufficiently interesting to spend an hour and half or should I say months writing. It was remarkable but not absolutely remarkable. Then I found out that his life was not overtly political if he was political at all. The people who knew him that I interviewed said time and again that he wasn’t interested in politics. For me, that was always going to be a problem so that actually delayed writing the start of the play until in coming across the remarkable fact that he had become a member of the M.C.C. in December 1978 and I wondered how many black people had become full members of the M.C.C. and I made some enquiries and I asked one particular guy who knows a lot about black British history and I asked him do you know much about Black members of the M.C.C. and he gave me a book about Basil D’Oliveira and when I read that book for the first time – I said that’s the key to the whole play, that unlocked the whole thing for me, that is where the politics is in sport, in something that he loved. It may not have been political but if he was there witnessing it – this is the way to deal with the whole play and just put him in all these situations as a commentator and him repeatedly saying – more than you heard in Edinburgh as I had to shorten the play – I’m not into politics, I’m just an ordinary lawyer, that’s where the title of the play came from.”
It’s magnificent, especially as you just told me a few minutes ago that you heard the story from his nephew in Liverpool?
Tayo: “His nephew had also been in that very same school in Lagos and he had been a very close friend and classmate of my late brother but he had actually left the school before I did because he left to finish his A Levels and I think I only met him when I first came to Liverpool in 1989. He found me and he just talked about this uncle of his and I never really paid much notice until I was performing Call Mr. Robeson in London in 2011 and a friend brought another friend to see the show and this other friend was a passionate Nigerian historian and he emailed me after the show saying this is an interesting guy and he sent me a short Wikipedia page that he had done about Olatunji Sowande, I remember emailing him and saying yeah I heard about him, he’s interesting, maybe I’ll write a play about him! It’s amazing that all these little seeds were being planted, waiting for the right time and the right circumstances.”
Do you feel inspired by the fact that fate seemed to have brought you to these men and their stories?
Tayo: “Yes, I do definitely. One comes across lots of stories and you think wow this is something that I would like to share and the reason I would like to share is really spreading knowledge and by doing that, counteracting the racism we suffer today and the ignorance and also the injustice in society, be it in this part of the world or in other countries where there are great disparities in wealth and health. It is about spreading knowledge about how we’ve come from pretty bad places in the recent past but people have always resisted the injustice and if those people had not resisted as they had, I would not be sitting here with you as a black man talking to a white man. So it is incumbent on people like me to continue that sort of fight and also it is incumbent on everyone to continue the fight for economic equality and social justice. By telling these stories as opposed to keep making political speeches, that it’s one way of actually inspiring people to find out more about these things and do their bit to make the world a better place.”
Your delivery I must say is amongst the finest I’ve heard I’ve had the pleasure to hear from the stage, especially in this play, there is something very true, very authentic about the way you deliver someone else’s thoughts. I was wondering about your other play Call Mr. Robeson which you’re taking back to America next week, how do you think it transfers to the American stage?
Tayo: “I have taken it over there many times and it’s always interesting. Be it America, Nigeria, Jamaica, Australia or wherever I’ve performed Call Mr. Robeson, it’s invariably well received. In America, there is a difference because he was American and I’m telling a story about an American most people haven’t heard about because his story has been deliberately buried.”
I find that astonishing, because we’ve heard of him, many have loved his voice for decades!
Tayo: “I think it depends on what circles you move in, I think the starkest example I can give you was that in 2008, I was in America, I went to Dearborn, Michigan where there was a national conference of trade unions, people had come from all over the States and I did a presentation about the Paul Robeson story, it wasn’t the play, I just did it as a talk and I sang as well. Afterwards, I went up to this group of black delegates – three men and three women and they were near my age – late 40s, early 50s and I said I’m sorry you just missed something I did about Paul Robeson and one of them said who’s Paul Robeson? So this was people who were trade unionists, black, middle-aged and they had not heard of Paul Robeson, so it just demonstrates how effectively stories like his have been deliberately buried and I often say that he was buried whilst he was still alive.”
I find that very upsetting to hear and astonished, it seems impossible!
Tayo: “Yes it’s sadly not impossible but it is still surprising and you think that the American media that we have now is just a manifestation of things that started in his time. Any stories, any individuals that run counter to the ‘American Dream’ are buried so one can mention names of those known and unknown who are in jail today because the authorities even under a black President don’t want to have the light of day. Chelsea Manning – is the prime example, they don’t know what to do with Julian Assange, Edward Snowden can’t get back to their own countries.
There are others, two names that are always mentioned are Leonard Peltier who was a Native American activist who has been in jail for about 35 years and a man called Mumia Abu Jamal who was a Black Panther member and who was crucially a broadcaster and greatly eloquent and his words we so dangerous that he ended up being famed for murder and has been in prison in Pennsylvania for over 30 years so in that context, Paul Robeson’s non-appearance in the media or public consciousness is completely consistent and not surprising at all!”
I know that you’ve got a lot to prepare for, are you looking forward to bringing this equally important play to the Playhouse Studio?
Tayo: “It has turned out to be the most perfect start to the professional sharing of this play. Edinburgh Fringe is a great place to test it out but for the first proper showing in a main theatre to be at the Playhouse for a week is beyond a dream come true. The Everyman and Playhouse have been incredibly supportive and they even came to me without asking, I was trying to sell an idea for a small festival for a week in October but they said we want your play! For it to be in my home city at such an august place, Paul Robeson used to say, “my Pop would be proud” but now I think Olatunji Sowande would be proud! The amazing thing is that I was talking to his nephew yesterday and I open on what would have been his birthday – 4th October, so the planets, the gods, the ancestors are all in alignment.”
I know it’s going to be a big highlight of the season – congratulations on the Edinburgh run and for the upcoming show.
Tayo: “Thank you very much!”
Just An Ordinary Lawyer is on at the Studio at the Liverpool Playhouse Theatre from the 4th to the 8th October 2016. Tickets are available from the Playhouse Theatre Box office.
Ian D. Hall