Tom Wainright: Custody
By Caro Moses | Published on Monday 27 March 2017
The latest play to go up over at Ovalhouse is ‘Custody’, a heartbreaking-sounding piece that examines the very serious issue of young black men dying while in police custody, with a focus on the emotional journey loved ones go through: trying to find out what has happened, while simultaneously processing their grief.
The show was created by Urban Wolf (aka Urbain Hayo), and written by Tom Wainright. I spoke to Tom, to find out more about the show, and his involvement in it.
CM: Can you tell us what the show is about? Where is it set, and what happens in it?
TW: The show is about a young black man who dies in police custody in south London. Because the family are denied, as they see it, the truth and therefore justice, their grief is arrested and begins to destroy them. The play charts their battle to find hope and love in the face of overwhelming obstruction.
CM: What provoked the creation of a show tackling this issue? What inspired it?
TW: No joke. It was Urbain getting arrested for ‘stealing’ his sister’s Oyster. Me personally, as a white boy from Surrey, I wouldn’t have touched this with a bargepole, but it being Urbain’s baby I could approach it with integrity, honesty and perhaps importantly, naivety.
CM: People associate this sort of case more with America, but of course it’s happened here too. Have you used particular UK cases as a jumping off point?
TW: We made a conscious decision not to base our family on a particular real life case. It’s a different sort of engagement. For example, we can put our fictional characters under huge pressure and have them behave badly in a way that would be inappropriate when dealing with real people.
What we found when talking to people affected by this was a remarkable similarity of experience in terms of time frame, perceived obstruction from the powers that be, and emotional and psychological fallout. Our family represent that experience.
CM: By its very nature, the play must be political. Do you think political theatre can have a tangible role in provoking change?
TW: Bluntly, no. Theatre makers often overstate their importance on a societal level. But it’s entirely legitimate to make a show about an issue you care deeply about.
CM: How did you come to be working together on this?
TW: Urbain needed a writer because he’s dyslexic and can’t write. So he says, anyway. He’d been in a show I’d written a while back, liked my style, and got in touch. My job was to get inside his head and heart and go from there. Urbain’s very open, so it was more straightforward than it sounds.
CM: How has your collaboration worked?
TW: We talk. We argue. We laugh. We talk. We argue. We laugh. And so on…
CM: Who else is involved in this project?
TW: Loads of people. But the ones I’ve been directly involved with have been Gbemi Ikumelo (director) who fights to keep my lines and John Gordon (dramaturg), who fights to cut them. It works quite well as a process.
CM: What’s next for the show? Are there plans to tour it to a wider audience?
TW: Urbain’s the guy to ask about that. I think if I had plans to do anything other than write the best script I can I’d fall flat on my face. I still might fall flat on my face. Let’s see how this run goes eh?
‘Custody’ is on at Ovalhouse from 28 Mar-8 Apr. See the venue website here for info and to book.