David Oluwale was last seen alive on the night of 17 April 1969, as he was being beaten by police officers in Leeds. Two weeks later his body was pulled out of the River Aire.
A subsequent investigation revealed the horror of David’s treatment over several months at the hands of two police officers, which many more officers were complicit in.
It led to the only convictions to date of British police for a police-related death or death in custody – although they were for assault and not for manslaughter or murder.
Now The Hounding of David Oluwale is coming to the stage with playwright Oladipo Agbouluaje’s adaption of Kester Aspden’s award-winning book.
Actor Daniel Francis is playing the part of David Oluwale. He explained why he thinks it is such a powerful story.
“It’s a tale that we don’t often hear about,” he said. “David came over to Britain from Nigeria with high hopes. He had been led to believe in the British Empire and in the possibilities that the ‘motherland’ presented for someone like him.
“But when he arrived he found something very different. He faced living in a country where he was completely misunderstood. He went through some terrible experiences with the police and with the mental health services.
“David was diagnosed as schizophrenic when there was really no grounds for that diagnosis. He ended his life homeless and living on the streets.
“It’s shocking that someone in our community can just be taken off the street like that, locked away, have god knows what done to them and not be able to question it. That really is quite scary.”
Daniel explained that working on the play had made him think differently about homeless people.
“I think my own ignorance was quite high in terms of being able to walk past a homeless person on the street and just not pay them any mind. But there’s a story behind everyone. I hope the play will make other people think twice about their attitudes.”
He adds, “In David’s story there are people who went above and beyond the call of duty to try to get the truth out or to blow the whistle on what had really happened. So there are heroes in this story too.”
The Hounding of David Oluwale is set to premiere at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. “We are right on the doorstep of where all these events took place,” Daniel said.
“The play’s director, Dawn Walton, pointed out to me that there is a huge banner with David’s face on it on the side of the playhouse that looks directly onto Millgarth police station where many of these incidents happened.
“It’s important for a city and a community to know its history – good and bad. Many people in Leeds, especially the younger ones, may not even know anything about this story.
“And, of course, it wasn’t just David who was hounded by the police. Other black people and Irish immigrants also had it rough. These things are often swept under the rug.
“But if you don’t learn your history, you can’t prevent similar things from happening again in the future.”
Playing David Oluwale is a challenging role, says Daniel. “The biggest concern for me is telling the story truthfully. That meant finding out more about David, what drove him, and where he was from. The play starts in 1949 so I had to learn about that era too.”
In many ways Daniel feels that he was an unlikely actor. As a young black man growing up in south London he only knew of a couple of actors who were friends of his mum.
“But both of them were white,” he said. “So I never thought theatre was an option for me. I would see black actors such as Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes on TV but they seemed so distant. I do think that there needs to be a greater effort to reach the communities that don’t go to the theatre.”
Daniel strongly believes that theatre can reach out and tell stories in a way that other mediums can’t. “It’s live and interactive,” he says. “It relies on the audience – it is immediate. When you have that sort of storytelling power you can bring people in and engage them.
“The last show that I did was very interactive with the audience. Young people loved it – suddenly there was a new possibility of storytelling and the message was more stimulating than they’d get just watching TV.
“Not that I’m knocking TV – every medium has its pluses and minuses, but I think theatre can be very effective at reaching people and educating as well as entertaining.
“We shouldn’t forget that entertaining is also a key job of theatre. Even in this play, there are plenty of lighter moments. You have to make people laugh as well as cry.”
The Hounding of David Oluwale is on at:
- Leeds – West Yorkshire Playhouse, 31 January – 21 February 2009
- Birmingham – Repertory Theatre, 25 – 28 February
- Liverpool – Everyman, 3 – 7 March
- Ipswich – New Wolsey, 11 – 14 March
- Exeter – Northcott Theatre, 17 – 21 March
- London – Hackney Empire, 24 – 28 March
- Nottingham – Playhouse, 31 March – 4 April
For more on the David Oluwale case, read Esme Choonara’s interview with Kester Aspden » ‘Nationality: Wog’