Created by Urban Wolf and written by Tom Wainwright
Ovalhouse and the Art Machine in collaboration with Faith Drama Productions
The fictional Brian was just another healthy young black male who died mysteriously in police custody, or, as the police who reported it to his family say, “he passed” at such and such a time.
And if the way that dreadful news is delivered is distressing, then what follows from this very special way of dying would take almost any family to breaking point.
The 2017 government report on deaths in custody details the extra trauma suffered by families, unsupported by the State, usually faced by a culture of defensiveness that often includes the circulation of negative information about the victim and their family to “diminish public sympathy.”
Not only is the life of a family member taken away, but also taken is their reputation and even the family rights over the corpse which the authorities may keep for long periods of investigation.
There is a terrible emotional, physical and financial cost as families trundle through the courts isolated, confused, grieving.
Sit in a court and watch the police represented by four or five legal defenders and then look across at the bewildered families without legal representation, perhaps representing themselves, their family name, their son. It is almost unbearable to see. It is a very peculiar form of cruelty.
The play Custody lets us glimpse some of that trauma. We arrive to the characters on stage already separately, slowly revolving, dazed against a backdrop of a grey brick wall that is broken centrally by the huge silhouette of a head.
The drama is presented mostly in brief scenes that include a mixture of dialogue with spoken word rhythms sometimes shaped in a choral form.
We never see Brian, but hear about the part he played in the lives of a brother (Urbain Hayo), a sister (Ewa Dina), a mother (Muna Otaru) and his partner (Rochelle James). The death dogs their life over three months, then a year and then continuing through eighteen months.
The mother tries to channel her grief through religion, the stress making her physically ill. The sister campaigns for justice, becoming worn and exhausted. The brother tries to escape through clubs and dance.
Since the authorities retain the body for investigation, the family are forced to hold a memorial rather than a funeral. The mother feels cheated by this, feels they are failing her son.
Brian’s partner feels separate, disconnected from Brian’s family, though at one point, hugging his brother, she is reminded of Brian by his brother’s smell.
Eventually, she moves on, has a child by a white partner, someone she says, being white, “is less likely to be killed by police.”
The play’s mood is downbeat and feels at times dramatically remote, but all the same gives us a very believable glimpse of the impact on families of a brutal judicial system more interested in protecting its own than supporting the victims family or delivering justice.