Entering the theatre at OVALHOUSE for Custody, you pass a brick wall scarred with scrawled epithets for a young man held in police custody; for a lost son, lost lover and brother; but mostly a lost light in his community. ‘So what?’ you might ask, ‘probably up to no good, probably had it coming’ – but what if he wasn’t fighting? Or not struggling, not screaming but calling, not dissin’ but gasping – for breath, for life. And what if he hadn’t been black? And what does it mean anyway, ‘death by misadventure’.
This docudrama has been developed and created by Urban Wolf with Tom Wainwright, shaping and writing the facts to create a stylised drama which at once informs and dramatises the events that take place in custody suits where often a disproportionate amount of young black men are held and often suffer fatal consequences.
A family is torn apart on discovering that Brian has been stopped in his BMW and on resisting arrest a struggle ensues in which he dies due to asphyxiation and the Coroner has so few witnesses and such little evidence to go that no blame can be apportioned. However, this family is not going down with out a fight. In a stylised delivery the company of four move like automatons, repeating and revisiting moves over and over again (a feeling, no doubt, similar to taking on the law and the Police who create a Kafkaesque world, where logic is defied and truth obscured)
As the mother grieves and increasingly seeks solutions with things spiritual, the sister and her younger ne’er-do-well brother are driven by the need for truth. Inspired by the dead man’s sister (ably played with a clear voice and clear intentions by Kike Brimah) the family rally, make speeches and pressurise authorities. The company is strong, led by a sterling performance from the grieving mother, Karlina Grace-Paseda, powerful and assured when moving between grief and bewilderment. The company was particularly effective with their choral speaking, controlled and repetitive, thought provoking with the words ‘ there was a bit of a scuffle, and I’m sorry to say, he passed away’.Wainwright nicely draws in other dramatic tensions, allowing the girlfriend an interesting journey as she tries to find a balance between loss and release. Release is not long coming as the blood relatives pull together and exclude her on their journey to justice – Sacharissa Claxton caught the complexity of this character on the edge of a family but grief makes outsiders of us all. As no justice is forthcoming the events take their toll on each member of the family.
Custody’s set was strikingly designed by Phil Newman. A brick wall with a silhouette of a man’s face; raised blocks suggesting platforms, tomb and seats. The wall moved and the silhouette revealed a white acting area which allowed the company to inhabit the space and echo the presence of the deceased man against a white background. Further protests, enquiries and lobbying seems to change little. The girlfriend moves on, releasing herself from the death and implied injustice but the dead man’s family cannot escape the fact that young black men are disproportionately arrested and molested; being black the family cannot avoid the issue. Wainwright steers a course between fact and fiction managing to make us think and entertain us with the trials of family life. There is no mistake that at their heart is a weeping sore and its impact is extensive on everyone in the family but his approach makes this a play which draws us all into a serious drama. The younger brother, played with charm and style by Urban Hayo, ultimately finds a voice and takes up the cause while becoming a carer for his mother.
Hope resounds, things can change. The play runs at the OVALHOUSE until April 8th.