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'Custody' explores death of black men under care of police

IMPORTANT: 'Custody' focuses on the plight of black men in Britain, and the untold stories of deaths in police custody

DO THE names Sarah Reed, Sheku Bayoh and Sean Rigg mean anything to you? Those are just a few of the black people who have died in police custody here in the UK.

While their names may ring a bell, black and minority ethnic (BAME) people who have died while in custody rarely make mainstream headlines and calls into question the importance placed on black lives in Britain today.

And while these victims’ deaths go unreported, their families are hit with questions about the tragedy that they may never have the answers to.

In the new play, Custody, created by actor and playwright Urbain Hayo and acclaimed writer Tom Wainwright, the focus is on this aspect of deaths in police custody and they explore how families cope with the loss of their loved ones.

The play, directed by Gbemi Ikumelo, is based on real-life experiences of British families as well as Hayo’s own experiences of stop and searches.

The inspiration behind the thought-provoking play was a documentary that the actor watched, which deeply inspired him to create the concept.

VISION: Urbain Hayo says he is honoured to be able to tell families’ stories in the play

“There’s a documentary called Injustice by Ken Fero, and the film follows the family of the people who have died in police custody,” he says.

“The reason I was so inspired by this documentary is that I felt that the narrative that is being told in society isn’t really true or genuine to the black experience.

“One thing that I really wanted to show the audience was the relationship between black people and the police, and give them insight into the relationship between the two sides.”

The emotive production does just that, as we witness the effects of these deaths on their loved ones and also acknowledge the deeply ingrained issues between black people and the police, which isn’t as acknowledged here in the UK when compared to the US.

The play also points to the troubling statistics that reveal since 2004, there have been 827 deaths in police custody and not a single prosecution and references Sean Rigg and Christopher Alder as examples.

Hayo even spoke to Rigg’s family while developing the play.

“Sean Rigg died in police custody in 2008, and I was able to speak to his family,” says the south London performer.

DEAD: Sean Rigg, who died in Brixton Police Station in 2008

“I was so honoured that they were able to share their story with me, because I wanted to create one story that told everyone’s story.”

Hayo’s decision to focus more on the family was so that he could bring in a perspective that all people could really appreciate and understand.

“I realised that by doing a show about a young black man and the police, that there was already going to be some bias,” he reveals.

“So by presenting a family who has been hit with this tragedy, I am then breaking this issue down, and trying to find a resolution and humanise it, which will create empathy with the audience who watches it. You’re going to be in the theatre, and go on this journey with this family and feel what it’s like. That’s why it had to be a theatre and why it had to be a family. It wasn’t about entertainment for me – it was about creating the most empathy with every human being who sees this, and also for white people who don’t know that journey, but can watch this and connect with it.”

While the focus is on the family, Custody poignantly reflects on the relationship between black people and the police – conflicts that Hayo himself has experienced.

VICTIM: Christopher Alder choked to death in police custody in Hull in 1998

“Even though I grew up on a south London estate, my family taught me to be educated, to dress well and things like that, so that was drilled into me from a very young age,” recalls Hayo.

“But when I was 15 years old I was stopped and searched for the first time.

“The policeman told me he was stopping me because I resembled somebody who robbed something in a shop and I need to be stopped and searched.

“What that told me in that moment was that even if I worked hard to try not to be that stereotypical black person, that’s what the police saw me as, and always would see me as regardless,” he says.

“Before that incident, I was the type of person to be like, ‘no, everyone’s equal’, but after that I would continue to have encounters with the police.”

One of the other key messages the 25-year-old creative wants viewers to take away from the play is that police custody deaths are prominent in Britain – despite the lack of attention in the media.

CRISIS: A British prison

“There are institutions here in England that work together to suppress these deaths and that’s why people have the perception that it’s not as big an issue,” says Hayo.

“Even black people have fallen into that perception, but they don’t realise that racism is so intrinsic in our institution that people believe it isn’t as bad as America.

“But that’s just because we don’t hear about it. That’s why it was important to create this play,” Hayo adds.


“Getting these people on board with me, and being able to get the family members to come and share there stories was important in putting an honest and truthful portrayal out there.”

Custody arriving at Lambeth’s Ovalhouse this month marks a huge success for the team after campaigning for funding to put this production together in 2016.

“One of the main challenges was finding funding, but we were able to do it with the help of the public,” he says.

“We asked for public support to help raise £20,000 to cover some of the production costs and this allowed us to bring the play to life. I’m really looking forward to people just seeing the play and for the families who have lost loved ones to police custody to feel I represented this issue in the right way.

“I want to tell their stories as justifiably and honest as possible.”

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