Strictly Arts Theatre Company takes systemic racism as their theme, and so Freeman, enumerating black victims of police brutality, is not expected to be an easy watch. Yet for all the urgency and anger in its statement that society hasn’t moved on from its prejudice against black people, this production is moving, even beautiful – as befits a memorial to the six lives highlighted, which this show might also be termed.
The six lives are chosen from many more named on a backdrop, and their tragic stories are told because “we must remember their names”. The six are linked through time from the 19th century to today, because of the alleged violence against them, but also the resultant impact on their mental health. Tragically, three of the six (Sarah Reed, Sandra Bland, Michael Bailey) hanged themselves in American prisons.
The death of David Oluwale led to the conviction of British police officers for the brutality which (directly or indirectly) led to his death. Michael Freeman pleaded insanity at his trial for murder – an insanity reportedly brought on by repeated violence against him, again by American police. Daniel M’Naghten gave his name to legal rules which allow a jury to decide an accused may be ‘guilty but insane’.
Camilla Whitehill’s script is necessarily provocative, yet is performed here in an inventive combination of creative sequences – sequences which tell the protagonists’ stories through silent movement, as well as more traditional drama and some song. A series of scenes rehearse what is said to have happened to each victim, and in each case we are assailed by the injustices on display and the pointlessness of the resultant deaths.
Each of these mini-dramas is punctuated by episodes of physical theatre which are acrobatic, absorbing and impressive to watch, bringing some relief, for all their often brutal content. These physical scenes have the added effect of providing the audience with pause for thought; the result is that the punch of the scenes playing out the facts of repeated racism is all the more hard-hitting, and at least as powerful in message as any angry speech. It’s not all heavy, though – a wonderful 50s music-hall scene notably injects some fun.
This show feels important, necessary in its message, and surely has a future beyond the life of the Edinburgh Fringe. But as well as being struck by the issues highlighted – and the company’s obvious commitment to their political purpose – I’m also left with an overriding impression of a creative, thoughtful production from a very talented set of performers… who absolutely deserved the ovation they received on the day I was there.