Edinburgh Fringe 2023
Incredibly captivating biographical play telling Olatunji, known as Tunji, Sowande life story from his beginning in Africa until his appointment as Britain’s first black Deputy Circuit Judge (assistant Recorder).
A dark room, with only the incessantly loud ticking of a clock, sets the stage. Suddenly, a song emerges from the darkness. A dignified gentleman, impeccably attired in a three-piece suit, beckons us to remember. “1968 was quite a year,” he remarks, a wry smile on his face. Some of us are evidently too young to recall, so he aids our understanding. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy are assassinated, the Israeli/PLO conflict escalates, the Prague Spring unfolds, student uprisings in Frankfurt and Paris shape the ideology of an entire generation of intellectuals, and the harrowing events in Biafra unfold. Yet, for our protagonist, the Oval takes centre stage, as he watches cricket, making 1968 pivotal. He witnesses Basil D’Oliveira’s remarkable 150 for England, a performance that will ignite the D’Oliveira affair. We, the audience, are transported there, courtesy of masterful sound effects (by Noel Inyang and Tayọ Aluko) that effectively establish the atmosphere for the ensuing 90 minutes.
But how did ‘he,’ for his identity still eludes us, find himself at the Oval during that historic moment? The journey commenced in 1945, when he auditions at London’s Conway Hall on Red Lion Square. He steps into the limelight to sing “Holy City” before a panel of auditors, two white ladies taken aback by his black face. His mellifluous voice secures his place. Henceforth, he entertains in care homes, a commitment that persists throughout his life and songs appear throughout the play.
He steps further back in time. He tells us about his time in Lagos, about his unsuccessful marriage that gave him two children, a girl called Ayo and a boy called Tunde. He tells us about his schooling and the lifelong interest in cricket this fostered, his family and why he decides at a later stage in life, when he was already established in society to give it all up and move to the UK to study law. He mentions the casual racism of middle-class Nigerians towards the West Indians, the descendants of slaves, that they call ‘sugarcane eaters’. They wilfully ignore the Yoruba involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.
In London, he immerses himself in a vibrant social life, relegating studying to a secondary role. He qualifies and embarks on a quest for employment. A ten-month wait precedes Tunji Sowande’s first interview. Seated in an anteroom, he acquaints himself with the cricket memorabilia adorning the walls. He anticipates camaraderie with his interviewer, only to be bitterly disillusioned by the racism exhibited by the elderly white man. The interview becomes a platform for the latter to demean the young African lawyer.
Undaunted, Tunji perseveres and secures an opportunity through a church introduction. Progress follows, alongside his care home performances, culminating in his call to the bar in 1956. In the tumultuous year of 1968, Tunji becomes the first black head of chambers. By 1978, he ascends to the position of the first black Deputy Circuit Judge.
Throughout his life, he encounters individuals unafraid to voice opinions on significant matters. His friend Laddie Williams, for instance, offers a distinctive perspective on the West’s portrayal of the Land and Freedom Army of Kenya. Tunji bears witness to pivotal moments in black emancipation, often elucidated or commented upon by other characters, also, like Tunji portrayed skilfully by Tayọ Aluko. Sporting events feature widely in this narration and give us example of black excellence that paved the way for others in other fields. While all these monumental events happen, we also hear of Tunji’s personal struggles as a parent and how he has changed from the young man in Africa.
Plans of returning as an elderly man to Africa give way to the realization that such a homecoming is unfeasible. The play concludes where it commenced – in a dim room, accompanied by a song and the incessant ticking of a clock.
Tayọ Aluko who wrote the play for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2016, revives Just An Ordinary Lawyer before he goes on tour in Autumn. This time he is accompanied by experienced Welsh accompanist Samuel Howley. Aluko has a nice singing voice that he uses to great effect in the many songs and hymns that punctuate this show. The play is replete with historical insights, encouraging the audience to reevaluate conventional historical narratives and delve deeper into research.
The minimalist yet evocative set, conceived by Emma Williams, comes alive through the astute lighting design of Mark Loudon. The dramaturgy, masterminded by Esther Wilson, is evident in this enlightening and gripping play, meticulously directed by Amanda Huxtable.
The intimate audience is spellbound, experiencing Tunji’s journey alongside him. Gasps fill the air as Tunji confronts the racist head of chambers. Every word of Tunji’s hymns is mouthed by the captivated attendees. The 90 minutes glide by, leaving the audience yearning for more.