Playwright Juliet Gilkes Romero blogs about starting rehearsals for her new play, The Whip.
Today is the first day of rehearsals for The Whip. It’s also the UN International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. This is auspicious. But it wasn’t planned, it just happened this way, and now I can’t help but feel as if historic forces from 1833 are gathering around this creative team and this conjuring of a powerful, compelling and turbulent past.
Who lives? Who dies?
During a recent reading, I watched my research and characters erupt into life. It was a profoundly humbling experience. Who lives? Who dies? Who tells our stories? These are the kind of questions that have underscored every draft and which have driven me to explore the true story of abolition and how it was achieved. It is also the title of a song from the musical Hamilton which explores how legacy is often decided by people over whom we have little or no control.
Descendents of the slave trade
The historical quest in The Whip was also a personal one. I am a descendant of the transatlantic slave trade, my great, great grandparents would have lived and struggled during the fight for emancipation. I discussed this and the day’s significance with my friend Sheena Thomson whose great, great, great grandfather was Thomas Clarkson, the leading abolitionist who helped achieve the passage of the initial 1807 Slave Trade Act by risking his own life and boarding slave ships to expose the violence and abject conditions endured by thousands of chained men, women and children, within.
Clearly, Sheena is proud of Clarkson’s campaign, "he was a fearless man ahead his time" and adds that "this history is still being mapped, while just over 40 million people remain trapped in modern slavery". As we chat, I like to think that our forefathers not only feel vindicated by our friendship, but that we clearly represent a future they could only have dreamt of. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to Sheena seeing the play.
My mission as a playwright is always to unravel what has lain untold and buried for political expediency. I have a passion for history and its handprint on the present. The 1833 Slavery Abolition Act allegedly freed 800,000 Caribbean slaves who were then the legal property of Britain’s slave owners. What is less well known is that the same act contained a provision for the financial compensation of the owners of those slaves, by the British taxpayer, for the loss of their 'property' and that the slaves should continue to work as unpaid apprentices for seven further years! The then government essentially took a huge financial risk and ‘mortgaged’ the future of generations to come. The money borrowed to achieve this ‘bailout’ was finally paid off by us, the taxpayers, in 2015!
By contrast, in America, the North was reluctant to pay compensation to southern slave owners, despite it coming up repeatedly 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 performed quite a ‘revolutionary’ act.
It is important to understand that, emancipation wasn’t just conferred upon silent African victims. Those enslaved fought for and campaigned courageously for their freedom in unspeakable circumstances; freedom fighters like Mary Prince, Olaudah Equiano, Toussaint Louverture and Harriet Tubman. It’s a narrative that’s barely found its way to our TV screens and history books. Also, the women in my play are passionate and exceptionally strategic about social justice and how to achieve it; another narrative that’s not much told. Neither women are ‘shrinking violets’ and represent the true black and working class roots of the suffragette movement, ignored in ‘popular’ depiction.
It's uniquely empowering to work alongside a committed and fearless Director like Kimberley Sykes and we continue to have many, many conversations about the morality of debt, freedom and the socio-political turmoil of the 1800s. Parliament was facing riot driven electoral reform, there was the iniquity of child labour and unfit Poor Laws. Into this crucible came the abolition debate and whether far flung slaves should be forced to work as unpaid apprentices, while their former owners reaped millions. To this end, The Whip is not actually a single issue narrative but rather, it reveals that how, now and again, history reaches an inflection point, where politicians find themselves confronted with very difficult circumstances and morally stark choices.
Who lives? Who dies? Who tells our stories? On this International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, The Whip rehearsals will dig deep and I for one can’t wait for you to join us when the play opens next year.