Ovalhouse Theatre, London – until 22 June 2019
This powerful piece of drama explores the way in which the police treat black men leaves the audience feeling emotionally raw.
Inspired by Urban Wolf’s own experiences with the police, his play Custody is a strikingly honest and emotionally powerful drama that focuses on the deaths of black men while in police custody and how those grieving are left to struggle to make sense of it all.
Custody begins with Brian’s family and girlfriend finding out about his death in police custody and follows their process of moving forward in their lives trying to get justice for Brian while grieving for their loss. It is a piece that is filled with anguish, anger and struggle that is emotionally raw for the audience to watch unfold.
Directed with great sensitivity and energy by Gbemisola Ikumelo, Custody shows how a mother grieves for her son, a sister seeks justice, a brother who hides how he is affected by the loss and Brian’s girlfriend who feels isolated from the family’s grief through a series of short but meaningful scenes. Each character is given a chance to express themselves through a thoughtful and heartfelt monologues that cover the many different elements that form this family’s experience as well as revealing how their grief actually alienates them from each other – before bringing them back together as time goes on.
Every part of the dialogue is sharp and pointed – particularly when the family are all trying to piece together exactly what happened to Brian and the frustration at the legal process. You consistently feel their anger and frustration at the legal system as well as the way in which the IPCC handle the whole case. This is highlighted by the wonderful moments of choreography in which the character’s inner torment is captured through a variety of movements and the way in which they hold themselves.
However, there is a part of me that feels as relevant as this play is, it doesn’t offer any solutions on how situations like these could be prevented in the future. There are mocking remarks made about how many in the IPCC are ‘middle aged white men’ but could have made clearer the need for more diversity in the police force and IPCC.
The play’s strength lies in showing how the characters each go on their own individual process of moving forward. From Brian’s mother’s loss in her Christian faith to Brian’s girlfriend eventually moving on and dating a white person because ‘he is less likely to be killed by the police’, Custody reveals that in situations like this without justice and those involved not held to account there is no real closure for families who find themselves in similar positions.
There is great energy and passion to be found in Custody that makes it compelling to watch. It is also filled with emotionally intense performances from all of the cast – particularly Muna Otaru as Brian’s mother whose swirling and conflicting emotions displayed are truly heartbreaking to see, particularly when she tries to communicate with Brian in her dreams. In contrast to this Rochelle James as Brian’s girlfriend beautifully portrays the isolation she feels in dealing with her own grief as seen when she is in the flat she shared with him by herself.
Raw and passionate throughout, Custody is an extraordinary piece of drama that brings into sharp focus just how far attitudes have yet to undergo change in Britain in terms of racism and brutality in the police force.
By Emma Clarendon
Custody continues to play at the Ovalhouse until the 22nd June.