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His Teeth

Only Connect is a London-based theatre company of actors made up of former prisoners and young people at risk of crime. His Teeth is their new production based on the story of fugitive Ralph Ojotu.
Clementine Cecil
1 November 2011

His Teeth, the new production from Only Connect is based on the story of Nigerian illegal immigrant Ralph Ojotu now on the run from the law. He cannot see the play, for Only Connect would have to hand him in to the police. Perhaps it is no bad thing - things do not end well for him on stage.

His Teeth is a hard-hitting production from a company of actors made up of former prisoners and young people at risk from crime, that was founded in 2006 by Emma and Danny Kruger after several workshops held in prisons in London and Manchester. The aim of this visionary charity is to help ex-prisoners stop re-offending and young people at risk from crime to steer a clear course, by drawing on the experiences and talents of those who have already offended. Scripts are developed in cooperation with the members, who then act them, producing electric theatre.

Kareem Dauda as Eric Adegeye. Photo Karis Mackenzie

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Eric Adegeye is the name of the protagonist, whose story is inspired by Ralph Ojotu, written by Ben Musgrave. Eric is a proud young man, with a background in crime in Nigeria, who comes to the UK with dreams of making it big. He wants to work his way up the ladder without breaking the law, but on arrival he finds his vulnerability prayed upon and is quickly trapped in a criminal underworld of sex-trafficking by a sleazy go-between for a pimp, brilliantly played by Dymond Allen. The title refers to the pimp, Derek played by Junior (Mila) Miller, who asks to see Eric’s teeth when considering him as a rent boy. Eric runs away but has nowhere to go and so comes back, very much like an ex-offender who returns to crime as they know no other way. He escapes once more, with Derek’s crack-head girlfriend Sarah, played by Eleanour Wyld, but, wrongfully accused of murder of one of Derek’s enslaved boys, movingly portrayed by Mose Gomes-Santos, he leaves her to go on the run. Things only get darker from then on as the police officer, played by the talented Harry Rafferty, turns up the heat.

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Harry Rafferty as the Police Officer. Photo Karis Mackenzie

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The production is powerful, played within a square in the centre of the hall, screened off by thin qauze which is also used to take video projections, allowing the atmosphere to morph effectively between Nigeria, a London basement and a forest glade. The enclosed space intensifies the feeling of entrapment that all the characters suffer from in this unrelenting play. However, despite the tragedy, the energy and passion of the production make it an uplifting experience.

Kareem Dauda, 29, who plays Eric, met Emma Kruger in Wormwood Scrubs in 2005 when he was serving a four-year sentence for possession of firearms, burglary and aggravated vehicle taking. The meeting came at a time when he had decided to go straight after nearly 10 years of petty crime and periods of crack cocaine addiction. Dauda had served several sentences between the ages of 16 and 20, and realised then, at the age of 23, that the sentences were only going to get longer. “I had a five-month child when I was sentenced. I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’” He was recommended to Kruger, who asked him to enrol other prisoners to take part in a workshop. For four weeks a group of inmates supervised by Kruger in a small room on the top floor of the prison conducted workshops, out of which a small kernel of actors was formed. Rehearsals led to a production of Jitney by August Wilson, in which Dauda took the leading role. The process of creating a piece of work together with other inmates, and of performing, had a profound affect on Dauda, since when he has become one of the driving forces of Only Connect.

Dauda plays the wide range of Eric’s quickly changing emotions masterfully. He said that despite their differences in background, he could identify with Eric’s feelings of disorientation and vulnerability on arrival in the UK: “When you go to prison and you come out you no longer feel like a person. You try and integrate yourself into the world. You have no status in society. You don’t have many options and so you latch on to anything that’s placed in front of you,” he said.

The play is directed by Maggie Norris, Artistic Director at Only Connect. She has been with the organisation for three years following a career in commercial theatre, and is passionate about her work: “We have found a connection between bad behaviour and creativity,” she said of her experience of working with some of the most difficult category B prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs. She has developed a particular technique of working, which is a combination of discipline and a physical approach: “I’ve found our members respond extraordinarily well to discipline, which is why many of them feel safe in prison. And there is a hunger to express emotions. I’ve found that members don’t want to intellectualise the process and they are freed emotionally through the physical. It is an advantage for me that they have not been through drama school. They are incredibly open to accessing their emotions in a way that some trained actors have to unlearn what they’ve done at drama school in order to get back to.” Norris said that all her preconceptions about working with ex-offenders have been confounded: “I’ve not met a single Only Connect member who’s not been passionate about a project,” she said, “I do not treat them any differently from a professional company -  and they rise to that challenge. I assume that they are extra talented and capable of pulling this off, and if you give them an opportunity to excel, they seize it.”

The theatrical work, is, in the words of Danny Kruger, former speech writer to David Cameron, “transformative.” “It does amazing things for self-confidence and self perception and attitudes to others,” he said. This positive effect is now being felt in schools as Only Connect increases their outreach work. Dauda, says that the children respond well to them, especially because they do not sanitise their experiences: “the rawer we give it to them the more potent it is and they go away and think about it. We say to the boys: ‘you might think it’s all fun making £1,000 from selling crack but you might get stabbed in the neck with a rusty needle.’”  Dauda thinks things have got even worse on the streets than when he was a boy, “there is even more boredom and the media has made the kids money-hungry. They want money and the easiest way is to sell drugs.” He thinks there are more stabbings, recalling that when he was at school only one boy was killed, “but nowadays I could be taught a lesson for looking at you in the street. Their outlook is so aggressive that they do not care about life.” Dauda sees the summer riots as being driven by a combination of boredom, greed and a feeling of hopelessness at not being able to acquire any real skills.

I left Dauda sending his acting CV to theatrical agents. He begins drama school in January and would like to gain some experience outside Only Connect, with a view to later bringing back his skills to benefit the organisation. Make the most of his continued presence at Only Connect and go and catch His Teeth before it closes on 12th November. 

His Teeth, showing at Only Connect Theatre, 32 Cubitt Street, London WC1X 0LR. Readers of this article will get special £15 tickets if they use the  password 'MACHETE'.

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