Actor Debbie Korley talks about her character in The Whip and the former slave, writer and abolitionist that inspired her.

I play a character called Mercy Pryce who is based on the abolitionist and autobiographer Mary Prince who lived in Britain in the early 1800s. Mary was a runaway slave who had suffered and witnessed the most horrific cruelty, dehumanisation and fear during her life in Bermuda and Antigua in the West Indies. This continued when she was forced to come to England, and after enduring terrible servitude she found a way to be self sufficient, gain help from fellow abolitionists and also speak out about the plight of the slaves.

She was the first woman to present a petition to parliament and her best-selling 1831 memoir, The History of Mary Prince, was the first account of the life of a black woman to be published in the UK. Phenomenal!

What is amazing about Mary is her strength through her turmoil. Her dignity and determination to survive. She really is a force of nature and unbelievably inspiring. Her accounts are so raw and vivid that it sparked my imagination about what kind of person she must have been. How did she cope? How did she sleep? What was her life force?

A woman clasps her hands together, leaning on a wooden crate.
Debbie Korley as Mercy Pryce
Photo by Lucy Barriball © RSC Browse and license our images

Influencers in abolishing slavery

It has been an eye opener reading about Mary Prince's life and the lives of fellow abolitionists of the era like Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho, as they were all key to the abolition of slavery in Britain. They were also influencers in changing Britain’s outlook on slavery, which would have been a huge personal task - I keep having to remind myself about the lack of technology, transport and equality between classes and gender. 

The Whip

One of the reasons why I was so taken with The Whip was the title itself. It’s very evocative - your first conclusion may be that it is a brutal piece about the leather implement itself. But then you expand the definition and look at its political meaning or think of it metaphorically. These other complex themes and nuances are what bring the building blocks of the play together for me.

The whip as an object is perceived in so many different ways for different characters in the play. There are also many assumptions and decisions made simply by what this ‘Whip’ can do to suit a character. 

Mercy Pryce is a gem of a role. She’s extremely complex and challenging because she’s extraordinary and we as actors get very excited when given an opportunity to play someone who is not of our world and a heroine. She is also giving me life lessons though she’s fictitious and for that I thank Juliet Gilkes Romero for creating her.

Read writer Juliet Gilkes Romero's blog about The Whip, 'Who tells our stories?'


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