SheCan

Theatre: Juliet Gilkes Romero’s new play The Whip comes to RSC

Playwright and journalist Romero has reported for the BBC from countries including Ethiopia, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Her most recent work is for the TV series Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle (BBC4), co-produced with Sir Lenny Henry’s Douglas Road Productions.

Previously for the RSC she co-created Day of the Living, which played at The Other Place as part of the RSC’s Mischief Festival in 2018. She is the recipient of the Roland Rees Bursary 2019 named in honour of the co-founder of the Alfred Fagon Award and her play At The Gates of Gaza won the Writers’ Guild Best Play Award in 2009. Juliet has also written a political drama for a Limited TV Series, currently in development. Her new play The Whip is about to open in Stratford-Upon Avon at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

  1. Why did you leave broadcasting to become a full-time writer?

I am passionate about the telling of the human experience and in that regard journalism and theatre are very similar. But the latter is more immediate and confronts us with who we are and the consequences of the choices we make during a collective experience. Theatre represents a live crucible where we can debate and shine a light on the issues that challenge us the most. I find this exhilarating and inspiring.

  1. You recently picked up the Roland Rees Bursary recipient award at the Alfred Fagon award ceremony. Tell us what winning that award meant to you?

I was honoured to accept this award. Roland Rees was a pioneer in theatre. His company Foco Novo presented ground-breaking drama in the 70s and 80s. He commissioned leading Afro-American and Caribbean playwrights including LeRoi Jones, Mustapha Matura and Alfred Fagon, and in doing so brought their work to wider audiences. Rees founded the Alfred Fagon Awards which annually honours the work of black British playwrights.

  1. Did you train as a playwright? What has been the journey to where you are now?

I decided to take an MA in Writing for Performance at Goldsmiths College, London University. I had been doing a lot of creative writing in my spare time but wanted to formalise that passion, meet and learn from others. I wrote a play for the MA called At The Gates of Gaza and in 2008, it was produced and a year later it won the Best Play Award at the Writers Guild of Great Britain. Two years after that, I decided to leave the BBC and ‘plough my own furrow’ as a stage and screen writer. It’s not been an easy road. There is no financial safety net. You must be resilient and disciplined. But I wanted no regrets in life and am happy with my chosen path.

  1. Let’s talk about the whip, the premise of the story is slavery tell us more it and about why you choose this angle?

My big interest was in the morality of debt. Should British slave owners have been financially compensated for freeing some 800,000 enslaved people? In 1833 it was agreed that they would be paid some 20 million pounds for the loss of their ‘property’; the modern equivalent is around 20 billion pounds. At the time this sum represented 40 percent of the UK’s annual budget. The debt was finally 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, apprenticeships for up to seven years after abolition, which further benefited their former wealthy owners (a kind of reverse compensation!) In The Whip, the question of right and wrong and how much it costs creates the moral tension of the drama. What also interested me was that this compensation fund was not really known to the tax paying British public. It was only in 2018, when HMRC released this information in a tweet on its twitter feed, that this bailout became widely known. The tweet was deleted within minutes following a stunned social media backlash but by then it was too late, ‘the cat was out of the bag!’

  1. What is your view on reparations?

I honestly don’t know how this could be resolved. Some 30 million were forcibly removed from Africa and sold across the Caribbean, Latin America and the USA. I am a descendant of that injustice. However, one of the most promising initiatives comes from the University of Glasgow which has agreed to pay £20m in reparations to atone for its historical links to the transatlantic slave trade.  It has signed an agreement with the University of the West Indies to fund a joint centre for development research and student grants. It’s a bold and historic move. More institutions which benefitted financially from slave traders, should follow suit.

  1. Who are the main protagonists: what are their stories?

My characters are inspired by historical figures, like the then Home Secretary Lord Melbourne, slaves like Francis Barber who worked for the writer and critic, Samuel Johnson and the resolute, abolitionist Mary Prince who became the first black woman to present a petition to the British government in 1829, campaigning for the emancipation of slaves. Her memoir was written in 1831 and widely read. Other characters like Lord Boyd reflect the nascent function of a Chief Whip in nineteenth century parliamentary politics. Characters like Horatia represent the ideals and combative wit of early 18th century female, political activists such Mary Wollstonecraft who campaigned for women’s education and their right to vote.

  1. Do you have anything to say to those who say not another slave story?

Yes. Tough. I’ve only just started. The transatlantic slave trade heralded globalisation as we know it and the evolution of capitalism. Why would I as a black British writer ignore this? Also, of the 30 million snatched from Africa only a small per cent were taken to America, yet the American narrative dominates our literature and films. It’s time the Caribbean and Latin American experience was researched and told.

  1. What does it feel like to be the second black female to have your play at the Swan?

Fantastic. I think The Whip unravels British history buried for political expedience with humour and tragedy. Most importantly, the Royal Shakespeare Company recognised the urgency of the piece and have fully support my creative endeavour. For that I am grateful.

  1. What would you say to anyone who wants to write play from what you have learnt along the way?

For this I’ll quote from Toni Morrison;

‘If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it’.

This is how and why I started on this creative journey. After all, if we don’t tell our own stories, who will?

The Whip runs at The Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 21 March 2020. For tickets:  www.rsc.org.uk

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