Race riots, political cover-ups and audience reactions – creator and performer Urban Wolf tells us about what inspired his acclaimed play Custody and how it has grown while touring the UK. Read his interview then book your tickets.
The play, written by Tom Wainwright and created by Urban Wolf, runs from 5 to 22 June 2019 at Ovalhouse.
When another young black man dies in police custody and apparently no-one is to blame, one bereaved family battles for answers and justice.
A contemporary fictional narrative built on truth, Custody tackles an uncomfortable and devastating truth often naively assumed to be an American issue and questions the ability of the police to police themselves.
Urban Wolf takes the role of Brother in the play, with Muna Otaru (Broken, The Keeping Room) as Mother, Rochelle James as Lover and Ewa Dina as Sister. Gbemisola Ikumelo, whose performing credits include Twelfth Night (Young Vic), Oliver Twist (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre) and The New Nigerians (Arcola Theatre), directs.
Custody arrives at Ovalhouse at a time when the police’s use of ‘stop and search’ has risen by 400%, while black people remain disproportionately targeted by it. The piece is inspired by Urban Wolf’s own experiences of stop and search, along with Migrant Media’s banned documentary films, Injustice and Who Polices The Police. It draws on the accounts of real families who have suffered police injustice.
Urban Wolf on creating Custody
What inspired you to create Custody?
I was inspired to create the piece after the riots that happened in Brixton. There were a lot of politicians on the news talking negatively about the young people protesting and vandalising the area. I wanted to create a piece that explained to white people, politicians and society at large why there was such anger in these communities.
Why is it such an important story to be telling?
It is such an important story because as a society in the UK we are in denial about our current state of race relations. It is generally assumed that racism is not a big deal in the UK. By telling this story we wanted to highlight the social, political, emotional implication of racism in the UK. We wanted to highlight death in police custody as a historical issue that occurs in BAME communities in the UK.
Why do you think we don’t hear more about deaths in police custody and incidents of police brutality?
We do not hear about death in police custody because there is a conscious effort from the police and political institution to cover up these deaths up. But there are a few cases that have been covered by the media such as Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg and Sarah Reid. In these cases, they do not cover how these death effect communities and families. These deaths tear families apart and put them on a journey to find justice and trust for their loved one.
Why is theatre a great way of telling this story?
Theatre is the best way of telling this story because it is a subject that people tend to avoid. By facilitating this conversation through theatre, we create a great scene of empathy as the audience is sharing the same space as the characters as they go through their experiences. This had a great impact on the audiences as they are so close to the experience, they are made to feel a part of the family and a part of the story. This is not possible in many other mediums.
How have audiences responded to Custody?
Audiences have responded to Custody in a visceral way. They said they felt every emotion you could ever feel while they watched the play.
Have any members of police forces seen it and commented?
We have had some ex-police officers come and see the show and they have supported the voice and message of the show, saying we’ve done a great job. They said they witnessed this corruption and culture within the police, but they did not know how to address it.
How has the production grown since you first staged it at Ovalhouse?
The show has grown due to the reactions of diverse audiences we have been able to present it to while on tour. Their reactions and feedback have made the show stronger and has given us more vitality and energy to tell this crucial story.
How do you find starring in your own play? Are there any challenges?
It is very challenging as I have to wear many hats and multitask, which is very hard for me, but I have the understanding that this show is bigger than me and must be told. I manage to do it all with the support of an amazing director, cast and crew. They really step into the gap and support me when I am overwhelmed. They really make things easier for me to do.
How are you feeling about bringing the show back to Ovalhouse?
I am excited as Ovalhouse is the home of this show. Not only as it is such a historic theatre in South London but also being a venue that is brave and support BAME talent.
What can audiences expect from the production?
Audiences can expect a life changing production that will leave them transformed.