Urbain Wolf is the creator of Custody, written by Tom Wainwright, and is one of four performers in the production directed Gbemisola Ikumelo.
The play centres on the death of Brian at the hands of officers and his family’s quest for answers and justice. The creation of the piece was inspired by Wolf’s own interactions as a young Black male with the police, the numerous deaths in custody in the U.K., speaking with the families of those murdered and Migrant Media’s banned cult documentaries Injustice and Who Polices the Police?
We caught up with Wolf prior to the show’s opening at Oval House this month to find out more.
1# Tell us a bit about the research you did for this piece of work…
I spoke to a lot of families who had experienced death in police custody. I worked with the Institute of Race Relations as well as a group called Inquest which helps to fight for the rights of family members and help them fight the case, helping with legal issues etc. I also interviewed mothers, brothers, and sisters of people who died in police custody to find out how they dealt with it and what their journey was, which helped me to understand the pattern. We researched a lot of cases that were high profile in the news such as the Sean Rigg case, watched documentaries, read statistics, but what affected the play the most were those first-hand experiences of family members who have had their loved ones die in police custody.
2# Did any surprising revelations come out of that process?
The surprising revelations were the extent to which political institutions are racist. When a family member dies in police custody the rest of the family members who are left behind must hire lawyers to fight and challenge the police and The Crown Prosecution Service as well as the Independent Police Complaints Commission; they are all working together to hide a lot of information so that police officers who have wrongfully killed those family members don’t get caught. I was under the perception that at least one of those organisations would be upstanding and objective, but they all conspire together to cover the death of black people. That was quite surprising to me as it really is embedded in those institutions and when you think about the malicious things they do, such as releasing information to the media to paint that person as a drug dealer or drug addict so it discredits their claim of wrongful death. It’s quite sad.
3# On creation and development, did you begin with one character or a broader story?
The more families we interviewed it became apparent that they all had the same experiences. Police officers killed their family members and they would all conspire to cover it up, even if there was evidence. When it gets taken to the CPS it would always get thrown out, whether it be a police officer beating someone so hard with a baton that it split their head open, or if they use too much force as a group so they suffocate them. But regardless of what the family members were able to dig out through their own means, when it reached the CPS they would all say there isn’t enough evidence, even if you have a huge amount of evidence, as it’s up to their discretion. It seems that from the 60s until now there hasn’t been any case worthy of prosecuting, which is sad. Because the families all had similar experiences, we chose to tell one story of one family, but that one story tells all the elements of different people because they had same experience. Custody is one story that speaks to everyone.
4# Then on building a team around you, you are the creator rather than the writer how did this relationship work?
The reason why I am the creator is because I’m dyslexic so I find it hard to write physically – it gives me the highest level of anxiety you could imagine! The easiest way to do this is to visually create a concept and work with a writer who has the most similar voice to the one I would like to have. It’s as if they are my mouth piece but they do get a lot of creative discretion, it’s just I give them borders. For example, Custody couldn’t be set in a time or place because these issues have been going on for such a long time. This play had to have the leading characters as black women because they are the ones that really fight for justice. I completely trust Tom Wainwright and believe he’s one of the best writers I’ve ever met. I try to express myself through speaking, pictures, sound, and poetry, and that catches people.
5# What was the motivation behind working with a white writer, how did this shape the perspective of the production?
I wanted to work with a white writer because I didn’t want it to become a piece that could have been interpreted as divisive between people and that only black people can access. By working with Tom who is not a young black man, I was hoping to create this amalgamation of cultures and a language that everyone can access whether they are from that world or not. That is what is so powerful about theatre. I didn’t want to alienate people and by working with white and black people it brings everyone together.
6# Funding – how was this project produced, was it a hard sell or did you find it relatively easy to get financial support?
It’s not easy getting financial support – you just have to be determined. I kept knocking on everybody’s doors asking for support and help. I tried any means possible, applying for crowdfunding, grants, any way you can raise money! If you put your mind to it, you can get it, you just have to be very patient. I think for other artists getting funding it is an important thing to understand as it gives you good standing to be a sustainable actor.
7# This is a crucial story how do you think deaths in police custody will stop in the UK?
When people start to acknowledge it’s happening as people aren’t acknowledging it at all. I am a black man in 2017 and I’m afraid for my life. I tell people the reason I don’t drive isn’t because I’m afraid or that I can’t afford it, but that I’m sacred that I will get stopped and searched and it will escalate, and consequently I might get killed. When people acknowledge the reality of where we are as a society in the UK today and that I could have a high chance of dying when I get stopped by the police, that’s problematic. We have to look into our legal systems, look at the judiciary system, the police federation, the IPPC. Are all these bodies objective or are they collaborating in hiding crimes against black people by the police? Make IPPC completely independent, make CPS actually want to convict police officers, make the law tighter in making people account for what they do. I’m a support worker for my day job and if I do something wrong, even if it’s minor, or a mistake, I would be held accountable and that also goes for social workers and teachers, why doesn’t it exist for the police?
8# The Black Lives Matter movement began in the states but has been taken on in the UK, how do you compare the movements?
The fact that there are guns used in America makes the situation worse, but black people are dying from the baton in the UK or suffocation. Black people are still dying. It’s wider in America because gun crime has a high profile in the media – America in the news is so powerful so everyone focuses on those dynamics which makes people think it doesn’t happen here. It still happens here through brutal use of force. When these family members go to see their deceased loved ones, they just see bruises on them yet they are told they lost breath and their heart stopped all of a sudden in the back of a van. How!? The end result is the same in America it’s just by a different means. People don’t want to acknowledge it here. The reason why Black Lives Matter was taken up here so quickly is because it is happening here! The truth is that we are on the street campaigning because we know it’s happening on a regular basis.
9# Do you think art has a duty to inform or educate?
Of course, and it’s my obligation as an artist to make people see themselves and think of things they wouldn’t normally think of daily. I love theatre because it’s allowed me to explore pockets of society that I would never ever normally be able to explore. It brings the world closer together because we get to see and empathise with one another. I create art to change human beings’ lives. If I’m not challenging audiences and creating something that will potentially change your life after coming to the space, I’d feel like I’ve failed. We have to constantly continue to challenge the audience and push the boundaries to help them grow so we all grow as a society.
10# Why should people not miss this play?
People should come and see Custody because it’s an experience and opportunity to look into a world that you may never thought existed. Or, it might have happened to you, [then] your story is being told. Black people should come and see their story being told, so they know they’re not alone and people know of their struggles. Other people who are not from that experience, come and see what your neighbour is struggling with. I’m hoping we can all join together to discuss what is happening so we can create a better society for all of us.
Custody runs at @Ovalhouse 28 March – 8 April. Previews begin from Tues 28 March. There will be an after show discussion Thur 6th April. Find out more and book tickets here.