On the dawning of the 19th century, politicians gathered in London to abolish the slave trade forever. This story is brought to the stage in Juliet Gilkes Romero’s new play The Whip tells that important story that changed the course of history.
It’s a complex story of the fight for freedom and The Whip puts two women at the forefront, who form an unlikely union to use their voices to make change. I spoke to Debbie Korley, who plays the role of Mercy Pryce. Although the character is fictionalised, it’s a real moment in history based on the women of that time all captured in a dynamic new production.
“She is a character that is based on the real life person Mary Prince, who was an abolitionist during the late 1700s and early 1800s. So she was someone who fought for the abolition of slavery,” said Debbie. “It’s a play about what a lot of people don’t know about British slave trade as it covers the political insight into the abolition bill.”
When thinking of slave trade, it is commonly the American stories that spring to mind. While it seems incomprehensible that people would not consider abolishing the slave trade, it was a complex issue in Britain at the time.
The price of freedom had the potential to turn out to be a multi-billion pound pay off to the slave owners which would have a massive effect on the country’s economy. It was a huge moment in political history that was shaped by people like Mary Prince who changed the course of history with her activism and determination.
“It follows two strong women and their stories as it shines a light on what they go through to try and help women’s voices,” said Debbie. “We are in 2020 and we forget what women had to endure in 1833. Especially working class women and women of colour.”
Mercy was a slave in the West Indies who ran away and was forced to come to Britain. “When she came to Britain and realised slavery was frowned upon, she fought to try and help abolish it by just talking about her story,” explained Debbie. “She fights through words and very intelligent wordsmith to help free her people. It is a huge battle and she does the best she can with what she has, which is very little really. She is an incredible character to play.”
The Whip is a modern telling of a past era. Despite being set in 1833, the language and dialogue is very contemporary. “It feels like a period piece with the lovely lush costumes,” said Debbie. “But our director Kimberly Sykes really wants the piece to chime with audiences of 2020. There are moments that feel very in keeping with modern day. I’d describe it as period but with a modern edge.
“We are trying to keep the scenes really active and exciting so that people can really receive the information. We are living in political crossroads at the moment and this was a moment in British history that changed the landscape of Britain for a long time. We are living in a moment like that right now, so we are really using the parallels to keep the piece really modern.”
It’s a powerful yet incredibly emotive piece. Mercy is a character that goes on a huge journey throughout the story and Debbie has approached that in a very sensitive way. “I’ve been reading about Mary Prince and discovering the trauma and horrors in which these slaves endured and the dehumanisation of it all,” she said.
“I’ve been doing a lot of visual research such as watching films and reading books about abolitionists and just asking myself questions, really basic questions. When you’re living in fear, how do you survive? So just small, basic things. Just really multiplying everything by ten, so if you’re feeling sad, multiply that by ten and that’s how they feel.
“They had to deal with the loss of life so frequently. Lots of slave children were taken away from them and sold into different households, so they couldn’t even enjoy family on a really basic level.
“In terms of historical trauma, as a black woman, I don’t encounter racism very often but when you do, it’s that thing of how you felt when that instance happened? It is just about making everything so much bigger than yourself. It has really helped me to focus the emotion.”
Debbie has worked with the RSC a multitude of times in productions such as King Lear and Hamlet, but she feels so grateful to be taking on such an incredible role in an important new play. “The fact that the RSC have been generous enough to take this woman’s play and share it is amazing,” Debbie said.
“It is a surprising play because I am sure a lot of people would assume that it’s mainly about black people, but it’s not. It is about universal ideas and that has been a really humbling experience. Every single character in this play goes through massive highs and massive lows. For me, that just really unifies everybody, every human.”
Telling the story of many female abolitionists, Mercy is an activist and Debbie relates that to many women in modern culture. Such as Oprah Winfrey, Jacinda Ardern the Prime Minister of New Zealand and even young women like Greta Thunberg.
“I want the audience to leave taking a moment to reflect on everybody that is affected by this play. It would be wonderful if people received the information and let that information permeate and process,” Debbie explained.
“But also for people to feel that they can tell other people about this. To take from it the strength of the play, that human beings are so much stronger and resilient than we give them credit for. It would be great for people to take the wide context of the play and these individuals in the play and feel emblazoned by them, because they are truly phenomenal.”
The Whip is on at the RSC’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon until the 21st of March, tickets and information can be found on their website.