This energetic, invigorating and ultimately thought-provoking play was brought to life through performances by a quartet of actors supported by a high-quality creative team. ‘Custody’ gave narrative and shed light on police brutality and the emotional turmoil families experience when a loved one dies without justice being served.
The beginning of the play opened with the cast scattered around the stage moving slowly in silence emulating pain, sorrow and feelings of loss. The opening created and built upon the experiences of a family unit (mother, brother, sister and lover) as they processed the news that Brian, a young black man with the world at his feet, died whilst in police custody. As they chimed together in unison repetitively, ‘There was a bit of a scuffle and he passed away.’ The feeling of confusion, disgust and hurt radiated through the audience as this was the first scene comprised of dialogue. The prominent and powerful line combined with elements of contemporary dance allowed the audience to first handedly empathise and understand the helplessness and powerlessness each member individually felt. This search for peace within, apposed with attempts to process a violent reality gave narrative to all those who have been served an injustice in their fight against police brutality over the years. In light of the new Nexflix release- ‘Now they see us’- Creator Urban Wolf and author Tom Wainwright have really outdone themselves with this fresh innovative play, ‘Custody’.
The set design, sounds and performances littered with song presented a heart wrenching story which is believable. The performance given by each character allowed the audience to capture a glimpse of the obstacles involved in fighting the law while trying to maintain their sanity and working through the complexities of loss within a family dynamic. The powerful performance by Muna Otaru (who’s credits include Damilola Taylor, Our Loved Boy (BBC One) as Brian’s mother highlighted the internal and external struggle mothers experience when they lose a child. Fighting spiritually as she called on her ancestors to grant Brian’s spirit safe passage when she is constantly tormented by his visitations in her dreams allowed the audience to reflect on the violence black people have endured over the centuries (spirituality as well as physically). She also acted as an anchor between the generations and conveyed the frustration of, ‘uprooting oneself from the motherland’ only to be mistreated and hard done by.
Brian’s brother played by Urban Wolf himself, also struggled as he tried to neglect the, ‘ invisible battle of unfair treatment and injustice’ so many young black men face today. The play explored his selfishness but also vulnerability as he knew he was also in danger of an unjust system. He also played a key role in highlighting no one is safe-‘I’m blacker than you. You wear them skinny jeans. Talking about race! Why did you act like a bounty! It didn’t help you anyway’. His arrogance but also fear emphasised the reason why black men may choose to shy away from such topics. This issue is highlighted again by Brian’s girlfriend who is portrayed by Rochelle James (whose credits include Casualty) when she visits his graveside a year later, ‘ I’ve moved on and he’s white and ginger. He’s less likely to get killed by the police and that’s what’s important to me. I’m not gonna come back to visit you Brian, it hurts too much’. Her character not only displayed the anguish of losing a lover but also the isolation that comes along with not being a part of the ,’blood family’ who loses someone. Brian’s sister played by Ewa Dina (whose credits include Broken (BBC one, LA productions) used her anguish to fight through the months of trails and constant dismissal from the jury to prosecute only to lead to burnout. This is a burden most families in similar situations face, however her persistence allowed her strength to shine through and inspire her brother to make a stand and spread the gospel of Brian’s tribulations to the community in the closing scene. This doesn’t go to say the play is without humorous moments but the play left me reflecting on the hundreds of lives lost to police brutality not only in the UK but also across the world.
I also managed to catch up with the cast after the show! Ewa and Rochelle conveyed their passion about the show but also the reality of a system which seems to mistreat ethnic minorities handled and held in police custody ,’ I felt really miserable when we first started our run of touring. We’ve performed in Coventry, Bristol, Huddersfield and London and the feeling remains. It’s our people’. Ewa also added, ‘ this has been happening for years, there are 18 hundred unconvicted cases in the UK alone and there may be more’. Ewa went on to mention Christopher Adler, who was a 37-year-old former paratrooper who died handcuffed on the floor of a Hull police station in 1998, as police officers stood and joked as he choked to death over 11 minutes. This alone evoked rage in my heart as I started to think about the levels of abuse and misuse of authority of those involved in related cases.
After I composed myself I also caught up with Urban Wolf. Custody, is Urban’s first play to be produced. He is passionate about building narratives for individuals and communities which are unheard in the mainstream. Urban shared that he too is emotionally attached to the play and he has to emotionally prepapare before he performs. ‘ How you feel affects how your character performs, every run is different and it’s hard to separate your feelings sometimes’. Urban also went on to express his views about the different roles men and women play in the face of crisis, in particular the aftermath of crime and death within the black community in the context of violence and police brutality. ‘Art has to reflect society but also show how it can be, black men should step up!. I did feel parts of the play may be slightly dishonourable towards black women as they are the ones that really fight the fight but we shouldn’t wait for them to burn out before we step in’. In relation to the message of the show, Urban said, ‘Death in police custody is a real thing and black men are still dying due to racism and institutionalised racism’. ‘Generation trauma is also very real, violence against the black body continues plus we need representation, it’s not just Brian. He is every black man!’.