Juliet Gilkes Romero

Credit: Steve Tanner/RSC

What are the themes of your play?
The Whip is a drama about the untold cost of freedom and the fight for political solidarity, which for the main protagonists is both dangerous and revolutionary.  Betrayal, the inequity of slavery in the colonies and also in England’s fearsome cotton mills collide as major themes.

Why did you write it and why now?
I like to unearth inconvenient political truths and untold stories. The battle behind the scenes of the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act was compelling.  It has always been portrayed as a heroic victory for human decency.  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, and that the slaves would be legally forced to work as unpaid apprentices for seven further years.  Emancipated slaves were immediately thrust into a new purgatory, the institution of apprenticeship which was slavery by another name. The money borrowed to achieve this ‘bailout’ was so huge it was finally paid off by us, the taxpayer, in 2015; equivalent to some 20 billion pounds today.  It was one of the biggest in British history and made slave owners even richer.

Why is this history barely known to the British public or taught in British schools? This omission is unforgiveable. The facts deserve to be re-examined and future generations have the right to debate how Britain’s collective colonial memory, or lack of it, shapes our current cultural reality.

Which playwrights are you influenced by and why?
I like plays with political bite so at the moment it’s Katori Hall and her fearless examination of the Rwandan genocide with the stunning ‘Our Lady of Kibeho’.  There’s Danai Gurira’s electrifying ‘The Convert’ about the collision of race, religion and colonialism in what was Rhodesia in 1896. Also, August Wilson for his cycle of ten plays that chronicle the twentieth century African-American experience.  Who is not inspired by his vision and ambition?  I can’t wait for the film version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom!

What do you want to achieve as a playwright?
I enjoy writing drama with international resonance whether it’s the scandal of Mexico’s disappeared, the tangled history of the transatlantic slave trade or retelling Medea with themes of exile and migrant persecution.  As a former journalist, I’m keen to expose stories hidden for political expediency but always with an eye on bringing to life the contradictions and struggles of characters in an entertaining, yet informative way while hopefully leaving an audience talking for hours, days and perhaps even years. Finally, my goal is to confront the tension between political censorship and freedom of speech, truth and fact (just witness the fallout of the US election). I think this quote by the Indonesian writer, Seno Gumira Ajidarma best sums up my direction of travel “When journalism is silenced, literature must speak.  Because while journalism speaks with facts, literature speaks with truth.”


The Stage
The Telegraph

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