Custody at Ovalhouse Theatre
Creator Urbain Hayo (Urban Wolf) and writer Tom Wainwright developed this powerful play, Custody – directed by Gbemisola Ikumelo – in response to the crisis of the treatment of black men by law enforcement in the UK, focusing on the tragedy of death in police custody and how those left behind cope with it. Driven by Urban Wolf’s personal experiences with “stop and search” and Migrant Media’s documentaries Who Polices the Police and Injustice, the narrative is inspired by real-life accounts of police brutality.
Taking place within a two-year time span, this story portrays a family’s grieving for the loss of one young man – a son, a brother, a fiancé – arrested then killed for the “crime” of being a black male driving a BMW.
As viewers enter the theatre, mourning for 30-year-old British-Nigerian Brian Olayinka has already begun. Before a large outline of a man’s head loved ones agonise and repeat in dazed unison the words they were told: “There – was – a – bit –of – a – scuffle – and – I’m – sorry – to – say – he – passed – away…”
Via short scenes, those who loved Brian create a portrait of him through their grief and the after-effects manifested following their devastating loss. They identify his body: why is his face swollen? Why is it so difficult to get justice? His mother (Muna Otaru) has doubts about her Christian faith. Brian’s fiancée (Rochelle James) is crushed by despair as she faces their flat alone. They are torn asunder, their pain made worse by the evasiveness of authorities regarding cause of death. The official inquest verdict is “unlawful killing”, yet his murderers go free because of “insufficient evidence”.
With terrific acting, this exceptionally well-written piece sensitively portrays a family’s torment, and the dynamic within the group. Both traditional and experimental, the work is creative and unusual in its delivery: drumbeat rhythms accompany poetic or chanted dialogue, movement is dancelike. Set design astutely evokes inescapable harshness, starkness, outrage. Blindingly white, then red and white lighting invokes police, emergency. Music is intense and edgy, heightening drama and fear.
As with the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, Britain needs to face the issue of racism and brutality in its police force and court system. Custody is a superb, cutting-edge production that addresses this problem with intelligence, perceptiveness and heart.
Custody is at Ovalhouse Theatre from 5th until 22nd June 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the trailer for Custody here: