William Freeman died in jail. The son of a freed slave, he was wrongly convicted of horse theft and beaten so badly by cellmates that he left prison severely brain-damaged. After killing a family of four, he was declared sane enough to stand trial and died behind bars. His was a whole life lost to racism.
He is, of course, not alone. Freeman recounts the stories of five black men and women who died in police custody: Sandra Bland, found hanging in her cell after a minor traffic infringement; Michael Bailey, left unsupervised despite being on suicide watch; David Oluwale, the British Nigerian immigrant drowned in West Riding after a police beating; Sarah Reed, suicide following police brutality.
Like Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins, Camilla Whitehill’s play lets the dead swap stories across time and space. Underpinned by real anger, it’s horribly potent: an accumulation that leaves no doubt about the pattern at play. Black men and women with mental health issues are left to die – or worse, killed. By looping in Daniel M’Naghten, a Scot spared prison for killing a civil servant in 1843 by reason of insanity, Freeman stresses our inequality before the law.
It does, however, merely point out a problem, rather than seeking to pick it apart. Some of the stories bear fleshing out fully, not skimming through, and the swiftness leads to a mish-mash of styles, swinging from shadow storytelling to physical theatre, that feels somewhat dilettante.