Often, retellings of slavery are depicted in horrendous, gratuitous ways for the benefit of a white, guild-ridden audience. The RSC are about to stage The Whip which aims to relay this narrative in a different way. Emma Bentley chats to actor, Debbie Korley about her passion for the play and its deep relevance.
Debbie Korley has had a prolific career at the RSC. I know her face well, having seen her perform in Rupert Goold’s production of Romeo and Juliet and Paul Hunter’s The Comedy of Errors in 2010 and Natal’ia Vorozhbit’s The Grain Store, in 2009. Her performances are nuanced, yet quirky and she has an instant likeability, meaning that even when she has been cast in a small part – as is often the case with RSC ensembles – you are often looking out for her. As it turns out this likeability isn’t just an act; talking to her over the phone is a pleasure, as she snatches 20 minutes in between a matinee of A Museum in Bagdad and going back into rehearsals for, (the topic of our conversation) Juliet Gilkes-Romero’s new play: The Whip.
The Whip, which will play in The Swan from the 1 February to the 21 March, centres around the abolition of the slave trade in London. Korley will be playing the role of Mercy Pryce, a part she tells me she spent “3 months waiting” to find out she had got and all whilst feeling “completely besotted” with it after the audition. I suspect this will be the most important role if not of her career, then at least of her work at the RSC, where she tells me she has already had many “opportunities and challenges.” Just putting it out there: this will definitely be worth the train fare to Stratford-upon-Avon.
Korley explains how the part of Mercy is, “massively important to me because, you know, we’re telling stories of our ancestors.” She continues, “the fact that Juliet [Gilkes-Romero] is also a woman who comes from the West Indies and has penned this piece… it makes it deeply resonant.” We discuss how it’s a story that’s been told before but often from “the British perspective” and “generally when you think of slavery, you think of films like 12 Years A Slave, etc., which show the horrendous acts of violence that took place in a very filmic way.” Korley tells me that The Whip offers an alternative, that the play “is not just about the implement that caused so much brutality … It’s the ripples of that whip, politically, physically, mentally that tell our story.”
When Korley starts to explain more about her character, I can see why she fell in love. I had a hunch that the production was based on some kind of biography, but realising that a name like Mercy Pryce in a play about abolition was too good to be true (…“The price of mercy”), Korley tells me that the character is loosely based on a woman called Mary Prince – a former slave who had come to England from Bermuda. Korley explains, “[Prince] famously had a memoir that was about her life as an abolitionist, and also a human rights campaigner in a way. She stood to try and get rid of slavery in the colonies and she was a very political figure as well … She was very quick witted and front footed about her thinking.”
It’s not surprising given Great Britain’s adversity to teaching colonial history (as discussed expertly in this article by Maya Goodfellow) that I had never heard of Prince, but I was shocked, especially given she was black and female. Korley tells me Prince’s story eagerly, “the fact the she went to parliament and had a petition, and so many people backed her… it’s really interesting that her story has been pulled away from modern society because she was so prolific at the time.” She goes on, “because she was someone who’d run away from it and she was a real-life version of the slaves, … [she was] very nuanced, very lady like in her speech and that made her more human… What she did was bring this human version of the horrendousness of slavery and she used it to make these people [slave owners] aware that these people [slaves] are people, on the base level of things – because they were treated like cargo.”
The fact that the story will be told in such an angle as this, is not only a testament to Gilkes-Romero’s commitment to retelling history from a post-colonial perspective, but to Korley and her cast mates, led by director Kimberley Sykes (Beryl, Bolton Octagon), who have gone deep, deep into their research. Korley admits that upon unearthing it, “[the] layers gave us a real insight into how the connotations of slavery have influenced modern culture, it’s just massively shocking.” We talk at length about how the Brexit vote – which split the country in two – and even Beyoncé’s chain jewellery all have echoes to our colonial past. Korley tells me that in rehearsal she has come to realise, “how things have moved on, but there is a still a very long way to go.”
This conversation, along with the recent arguments surrounding racism in the media, all makes for a pertinent reminder that the play is staged now, but whether an audience pick up on these modern-day comparisons is subjective. What is exciting to me is that The Whip is making history itself. It has been 15 years since the work of a black playwright – debbie tucker green’s trade – has been performed at the RSC. There shouldn’t be any reason, other than the need for diversity, that the company have waited so long, but I suspect The Whip will make them feel very sorry for what they’ve missed out on and (hopefully) urge them to programme more vital work like this.
The Whip will start its run on 1 February. For more information and to book tickets, visit the RSC website.