Urban Wolf: 'Some theatres wouldn't stage my play because it calls out the middle class'
The theatremaker talks to us about his upcoming play, about the deaths of black people in police custody
Urbain Wolf (stage name Urban Wolf) is the creator of Custody, a new play about death in police custody written by Tom Wainwright, running at Ovalhouse Theatre from 28 March to 8 April.
What is Custody about?
Custody explores the issue of death in police custody in the UK, and how the aftermath is dealt with. In the majority of cases, the people involved do not get prosecuted. Even in cases where people in authority are proven to have used extreme violence that has led to an unlawful killing, they still don't get prosecuted. There's institutional racism embedded in our society and that needs to be highlighted.
Why did you decide to write this?
It's inspired by a documentary called Injustice, by a group called Migrant Media. They're a group of activist filmmakers who make political films and documentaries. I wanted to explore the themes in that documentary and bring them to the stage.
How did you get Custody to the stage?
I'm dyslexic so I find it hard to sit down and write. My brain is structured in a very unique way, so I can visualise things and hear things in my head, but I struggle to put pen to paper and actually do it. So I put a team of people together who were able to understand my vision and achieve that on stage. I worked with an amazing writer called Tom Wainwright, a dramaturg called John Gordon and Bemisola Ikumelo our director. They really helped to form the piece from concepts and themes, and how to form those in the most human way possible.
Where did the actual content of the piece come from? How much is personal experience?
As a young black man I've been stopped and searched for very trivial things. In those situations I learnt that it can escalate quickly. Luckily these occasions have not ended in my death but if I hadn't acted a certain way it could have ended a lot differently. I wanted to show the audience the extreme case, but also show how the racist perception people in authority have towards black people can escalate to situations like the one involving Mark Duggan.
Do you think the general view on this subject is that it doesn't happen in this country?
Yeah, it does seem like people have the perceived notion that it's only an American problem, but the truth is that it's not. There's a big cover up by the police and by the media to a certain extent.
Why do you think this isn't discussed more in the UK?
I feel like as a country we're very polite. We want to keep issues that make us look ugly or uncivilised under the carpet.
What do you hope to achieve from Custody?
I always say to people that, as an artist, I create work to have social and political impact. For me, if your work doesn't impact lives and society then there's no point in doing it. So I want the play to begin a discussion, to inspire other artists to create work about these subjects, to inspire journalists to investigate these issues. And just for people to be aware - the play is going to be published, kids and teachers will be able to buy it and hopefully, by doing that, giving people that access will help towards a future without racism.
Have you encountered racism in the theatre industry?
As a black artist in theatre, I feel like I can only get to a certain point without playing by certain rules. I know there are certain theatres that won't put on plays like this because of the ways it calls out the middle class and their apathy to these issues. Also, I was adamant that my director was a black female, you don't see many black female directors, I've only worked with two in my whole career.
Ovalhouse is a place where a lot of artists from a minority background are given opportunities - Arinze Kene's first play was here. They take risks and they give people chances, and I'm so grateful to them for this chance to tell this story.
Custody runs at Ovalhouse Theatre from 28 March to 8 April.