We live in a world in which people of colour are underrepresented everywhere except in the criminal justice system. A system which seems to institutionally target and criminalise people of colour, particularly black men. Writer Camilla Whitehill attempts to bring together five similar stories of police violence against black people across history.
We start with William Freeman, who was wrongly imprisoned for stealing a horse in the early 1800s, and we are then given a direct comparison in Daniel M’naghten. Both William and Daniel plead insanity and while Daniel gets admitted to an asylum, William is sentenced to death. A comparison which is still important to consider in today’s climate. As far as comparisons go, this is it. The other stories of police violence, neglect and institutional racism are left in the air to sit uncomfortably. The stories of Sarah Reed, Sandra Bland, David Oluwale and Michael Bailey share something with William’s: the idea that we have not moved on from troubling times. And yet, there is no change in the way in which the stories are told. The other stories aren’t explored in their own right. We see pain and death and are manipulated to feel sadness. As an audience member told me after the play, she felt guilty. Perhaps this is the intention of the play, to leave the audience feeling sad and responsible.
Black trauma put on stage for white audiences to feel guilt is a phenomenon that is getting a little boring. We seem to want to talk more about the what (the racism in the criminal justice system) instead of the how (the storytelling). As far at the storytelling in this piece goes, the physicality of the actors is incredible. Their recreation of objects and animals (at one point the actors became a horse) and use of shadow puppetry made this a beautiful play to watch. The versatility of the actors shone through.
Freeman is an educational play with movement. While the attempt to tell in so many stories in one piece is admirable, some of them feel shoehorned in. Whitehall limits the stories to police violence in and of itself, instead of exploring the institutional racism in the system that leads to this violence. As a result, what could be a play with a bold statement, unfortunately becomes merely trauma porn.
Freeman played at the Pleasance Courtyard until 27 August. For more information, click here.
Photo: Richard Kiely