Brighton Fringe 2014
At first sight, ‘Duwayne’ is a play about the killing of a man, and a long quest to obtain justice.
Actually, it’s about the growth of another man, and the development of his character as he overcomes obstacles and setbacks that would defeat most of us. It’s almost a modern retelling of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’.
Gail Louw is fascinated by prejudice and racism. Her last play, ‘Blonde Poison’, examined the mindset of Stella Goldschlag, a ‘greifer’ – a Jewish woman who chose to betray fellow Jews to the Nazis. In ‘Duwayne’ she’s looking at anti-Black prejudice in British society, and in its legal institutions – the Police Service in particular.
Everyone’s heard of Stephen Lawrence – "Oh yes – the black teenager who was stabbed in South London years ago. Took the police a while to find the killers, but they eventually got a few convictions. They went to prison in the end". In fact, it took nineteen years for Stephen Lawrence’s murderers to come to justice – nineteen years of obstruction and harassment by the Metropolitan Police of the only witness to the crime, Lawrence’s friend Duwayne Brooks.
We first see Duwayne kneeling by Stephen’s body as he lies bleeding to death on a South London street. Duwayne’s frantic – his friend’s life is ebbing away, but the policeman who arrives on the scene is more interested in getting names and facts down than in providing any form of medical first aid.
The production is directed by Tony Milner, and his starkly minimal set had harsh blue and white light washing down onto a three-sided acting space edged by grey steel crowd-control barriers and yellow-black warning tape. There were car hub caps lying around, and a large block of concrete, and the overall impression was urban and – gritty.
The stage at The Old Market is quite large, and defining a smaller space in the centre narrowed our field of view and focussed our attention very effectively. It also allowed the actors to go off just by passing the barriers, rather than having to run all the way to the wings.
Stephen Lawrence and Duwayne Brooks had been attacked by a gang of five or six white men while waiting at a bus stop. Duwayne is the only witness to the crime, yet when the police come to take his statement they are insistent that the assault must have been ‘provoked’ in some way. Lawrence and Brooks are black, of course, so -"Was it a gang fight?" and – "Was it you that started it?". Probing. Questioning. Disbelieving. Duwayne is young, and distressed, and alone – and he’s black. At the end he retreats under a duvet – seeking escape from the pressure of the questioning, but also from his own guilt and remorse. Did he do enough to save his friend? Should he have stayed with him instead of running away?
Duwayne knows what a couple of his attackers look like, and it seems that the police have a good idea who they are, but throughout the original identity parade and the subsequent prosecution initiated by Stephen Lawrence‘s family, the police use every method available to undermine Duwayne’s credibility as a witness and to put obstructions in the way of his evidence. At first the teenager is almost crushed, but over the months – and years – he becomes more resilient to the pressures, more confident in himself as an individual, and so he slowly becomes more assertive and outspoken.
Adrian Decosta must be about thirty, but this very talented actor passed convincingly as eighteen in the early scenes. In subsequent sections his voice became firmer and slower and his posture straightened, as his character grew older and more experienced. Duwayne just won’t give it up and go away. He keeps demanding justice, and so he becomes an embarrassment and an irritant to the Metropolitan Police.
"The nail that sticks up gets hammered down" states the Japanese proverb, and this uppity black man becomes a target for intimidation by the Police. His car is repeatedly broken into, he’s accused of sexual assaults, of burglary and a whole string of crimes, in an attempt to destroy his reputation and his will to carry on.
This is a very physical production, and the body language of the police radiated aggression as they screamed at him inches from his face, and at one point gave him a violent kicking. I knew it was only theatre, but I couldn’t help shuddering as the boots thudded into Duwayne’s body while he lay on the ground. Eerily, he ended up in the same pose as Stephen Lawrence’s body at the play’s beginning.
At one point he’s thrown into a police cell, the two officers swinging the steel crowd barriers across the space to trap Duwayne inside. Very simple, very visual – and very effective. Andy de Marquez was the white policeman, bearded and gruff, while David Ajao played the shorter, smoother black officer.
When these two are together they wear their white uniform shirts, but Ajao also comes on as the representative of the Black Police Federation, in full uniform tunic and cap; a black officer reassuring Duwayne that there’s no racist agenda in the investigation. Smooth and oily – "We’re the Police, Mr Brooks. You can trust us"
Gail Louw hasn’t made anything up in this piece – the facts are all available in the 1999 Macpherson Report (which spoke of ‘institutional racism’) and in Duwayne Brooks’ own book – but what she has done is use that material to create a very believable portrait of Duwayne himself, and his growth as a human being.
The man came to be greatly respected in his South London community, and in 2009 he was elected as a Councillor for the London Borough of Lewisham. It seems that he was influenced to enter public life by meeting Brian Paddick, once Deputy Assistant Commissioner and the only openly gay senior officer with the Met. Paddick himself knows a thing or two about overcoming prejudice, and recognised the leadership qualities in Duwayne. Paul Moriarty is a bit stockier than Paddick, but he has quite similar features and he produced a convincing portrait of the man. His firm handshake with Duwayne was the first bit of warmth that we’d seen in the whole play.
One small point. I can tell you that Paddick was played by Paul Moriarty because I asked him afterwards. While the programme had fulsome biographies of the four actors, it didn’t manage to indicate who played what role.