Culture’s Kenyah Coombs interviews playwright and journalist Juliet Gilkes Romero about her play running at the RSC, which explores the abolition of slavery in Britain
Juliet Gilkes Romero’s provocative new play, The Whip, tells the story of the lead up to the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, which abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. However, the success of the legislation depended on a multi-billion pound pay-off to the slave owners, the cost of which took nearly two centuries to clear.
What inspired you to write the play The Whip?
The transatlantic slave trade was the biggest deportation in history and a determining factor in the world economy of the 18th century. Millions of Africans were torn from their homes, deported to the American continent and sold as slaves.
I am descended from survivors of that trade and have been ‘burning’ to address the issue for some time, but in an original and ‘untold’ way. The opportunity presented itself during a ‘Day of Provocation’ at the RSC. It was my first introduction to the company and the challenge, hosted by Erica Whyman and Mark Ravenhill, was to debate ‘the unsayable, the unthinkable and inexplicable’. Social agitators including Giles Fraser, Darryl Cunningham and Lucy Mangan were our guests. The result was a no holds barred and uncensored discussion about race, religion, capitalism and war. Questions were asked like ‘Who benefits from pictures of dead refugee children? Who cares if we bomb Syria? Is money morally neutral? What is the morality of debt?
I came away determined to create a piece of theatre about the true price of freedom. That’s how The Whip was born. Not long after, HM Treasury announced in 2018 via a Tweet on its Twitter-feed that the multi-billion slavery compensation bill, the biggest in UK history, had finally been paid off by British tax-payers in February 2015. Most Britons, including myself, had no idea we had been paying for this one-hundred-and-eighty-two years later. There was a social media back over the glib nature of tweet which was subsequently deleted. The row added further urgency and some fire to my creative process and play draft.
How has your experience as a journalist helped you as a playwright?
Journalism has taught me to listen. Good journalists ‘hear’ their subjects and their writing bears witness to the diversity of human experience. I learnt to listen in the streets of Havana, amongst the poets and musicians who had fought in the revolution; with Somali refugees streaming across the border into the Ethiopian camps of Jigjigga, all their worldly possessions tied to their backs and in the slums of Haiti where seventy percent of the population languishes well below the poverty line and where poverty itself could actually pass as a luxury. I feel extremely privileged to have met the most extraordinary and courageous people, surviving, raising children, in very difficult conditions. In order to truly learn from others a journalist has to be open to anything and everything. But above all be able to listen. I hope I bring this curiosity and skill of listening to my playwriting. For me, journalism and theatre is about the telling of human experience. The more we listen, the more we hear. The Whip is ultimately a play about runaway slaves and impoverished mill workers who desperately want and need to be heard.
The Whip asks the morally complex questions “what is the right thing to do and how much does it cost?” Do you think these two questions should be considered together or do you think they should be examined separately?
Good question. I don’t think the issues can be easily separated. This would have resulted in two separate plays not one. As I explained earlier, my big interest was in the morality of debt. Should the slaveowners have been financially compensated for freeing some 800,000 enslaved people? According to The Guardian newspaper, they received the modern equivalent of 300 billion pounds; at the time this was 40 percent of the UK’s annual spend. The debt was paid off by British taxpayers over 120 years. Anyone working up to 2015 would have funded this massive pay-off awarded to a largely rich elite. Was it the right thing to do? Especially when the allegedly freed slaves were expected to work unpaid, seven-year apprenticeships after abolition, which further benefitted their former wealthy owners. By contrast, in America, the Northern states were reluctant to pay compensation to southern slave owners. The issue was repeatedly raised in Congress. The eventual result was the Civil War (1861-1865), in which over 600,000 people died. The carnage serves to remind us that while not perfect, British politicians compromised and agreed upon a ‘revolutionary’ resolution. In The Whip, the question of right and wrong and how much it costs creates the moral tension of the drama.
Looking at your experience in writing for television and writing for plays, do you, as a writer, take away anything differently from those or are they pretty similar?
In any medium, my mission is clear; to create strong, compelling narratives populated by unforgettable characters. I like to draw viewers in by creating situations that make them wonder ‘what if that was me?’ ‘What would I do?’ The emotional needs and wants of my characters drive dramatic events. I try to create characters who are ‘heroic and flawed’ because in life, we all end up facing challenges which test our moral fibre.
It’s the human condition. For me, the form, whether TV, film or theatre is quite irrelevant without great protagonists who can capture the imagination and help us understand our own humanity.
What have you learned through teaching creative writing for the National Theatre’s New Views programme and how has it been reflected in your own writing?
I am always deeply inspired when teaching creative writing to young students. There is a rawness and emotional honesty unbound by ‘rules’ and form. It reminds me that creative self-expression is best when it’s instinctual and free. I do teach dramatic structure, the nature of rhetoric, monologue and the importance of metaphor. But above all I am interested in the natural voice of young writers, so I encourage them to write without self-judgment and too much editing. As a professional writer I must always do the same.
Most of your work is political and is concerned with the impact of history on the present day. Why is this?
I enjoy unravelling untold histories that have lain buried or dormant for political expediency. The past is a powerful lens through which to view our present. The millions of pounds paid to slave owners, finally paid by a contemporary British public is an obvious example of why this is important. I have also used historical events to try and understand why we still go to war and the excuses we find to justify it. My play At The Gates of Gaza, set in 1917 followed the little known story of the British West Indies regiment. I wanted to get people stirred up about the nature of war, identity and injustice. What would prompt a man to kill another in the name of political ideology or loyalty? Why were West Indian soldiers so badly treated when the fighting was done?
I believe the public has the right to know how society has been formed by events omitted from our history books. Knowledge is power.
If, after seeing The Whip your audience takes away one thing, what would you want that to be?
The importance of speaking truth to power. The Whipasks what happens when ordinary people join forces and recognise commonality. It’s a play about the power of political solidarity, which for the characters is both dangerous and revolutionary.
For anyone who has a passion for storytelling, what is one advice you would give them?
Read and Write. Everyday. I am especially fond of this quote from Stephen King ‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time — or the tools — to write. Simple as that’.
The Whip runs in the Swan Theatre at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon between 1st February – 21th March 2020.
Book tickets at rsc.org.uk/the-whip or call 01789 331111.