“Politics is life” – Juliet Gilkes Romeo talks diversity, progress and playwriting

Juliet Gilkes Romero’s new play Upper Cut tackles the struggle for racial diversity in British politics. Here, Juliet tells Oberon about her inspiration, her research, and her hopes for how the play can influence the wider discussion. Upper Cut is on at Southwark Playhouse until 7 February.

Your play Upper Cut is loosely based on real events at the dawn of ‘New Labour’ in the mid-90s. Can you tell us any more about what inspired you to write this play?

There are currently just 27 Black and Ethnic Minority (BME) MPs out of a total of 650. I find this slightly shocking that the mother of parliaments is still so unrepresentative and I Upper Cut by Juliet Gilkes Romerowanted to know why? When Director Lotte Wakeham and actress Emma Dennis Edwards asked me to write a play about the black political landscape my answer was an immediate yes.

Upper Cut is seen from the perspective of a black female politician and unravels the fight for diversityand black representation through today’s coalition politics, the hope and rebirth of New Labour and straight into the troubled heart of a Labour party struggling under the might of Thatcher’s Tory revolution.

To understand present and past I had to re-examine an era when there were no black or Asian MPs in the House of Commons and why. It’s exciting to be the first new political play in a year where the general election could be the most unpredictable votein living memory.

I was very conscious of this while researching Upper Cut and believe the main three political parties will be forced to re-evaluate and finally embrace Britain’s diverse voters and the racial mix of Parliament.

The campaign group Operation Black Vote was established in 1996, the summer before New Labour’s landslide election victory.  How do you assess the progress made since then, specifically in terms of BME representation and political participation?

The progress is slow. Despite the triumph of 1987, there are currently just nine African and Afro-Caribbean MPs. Five of them are Labour MPs, a number that has barely increased since the late 1980s.

I admire their achievement in entering the House of Commons but I do feel a sense of disappointment that the figure is so low. I think this is best summed up by Diane Abbot. In the 2013 document ‘One Nation Labour, Black Representation Across The Party’ she  says “If you had told me that, 26 years later, the numbers of African and Afro-Caribbean Labour members of parliament would scarcely be any greater, I would have been shocked. We thought that we were opening a door, through which many others would flood through.”

OBV

© Operation Black Vote – http://www.obv.org.uk/

We clearly need to see more BME MPs and I am hopeful that my play will contribute positively and passionately to this debate. One of the black activists I interviewed as part of my research is now competing to be a Labour candidate in a North London seat.  I wish him well!

You were formerly a reporter and broadcast journalist for the BBC. How has this informed your playwriting career?

I think the years I have spent as a journalist have defined my playwriting.  Journalism has taught me to truly listen to what others have to say and because I’ve had the privilege of reporting overseas I am very drawn to writing stories outside of the traditional western perspective and indeed the ‘establishment’ wherever that may be.
When travelling through countries such as Ethiopia, Cuba and Haiti (and often alone) I learnt not to have any preconceived ideas about what I wanted to see or hear.
I have tackled subjects including genocide in Darfur, why we go to war, revolution and now the status of British parliamentary politics. I am always trying to surprise myself and hopefully the audience.

Upper Cut draws occasional similarities between the underrepresentation of women in politics to that of BME individuals; do you think these are issues that need to be treated with equal concern?

Absolutely. The Labour party transformed parliamentary politics through All Women Shortlists. It’s extraordinary when you consider that back in 1995 an industrial tribunal ruled the Labour party had broken the law by imposing the scheme.  But nothing else worked before then and it was a battle worth fighting and continues to this day.

What I find ironic is that the same constructive effort to reverse the under representation of women in politics is not used to do the same for ethnic diversity in Parliament. Why is the strategy good for one group and not for another? The Conservatives did manage to secure more minority MPs in 2010 by placing some on a candidates’ A-list. But the three main parties are still falling painfully short of reflecting the racial mix of the constituents they claim to represent.

The use of music in Upper Cut seems particularly significant – can you explain a little bit more about your song choices and their relationship to the script?

Music influences political movements and culture and I wanted certain tracks to reflect the evolution of Upper Cut’s unfolding years.

There are ten tracks in all but briefly It’s A Man’s World but sung by Cher ironically echoes the simmering tensions over  the selection of female  parliamentary candidates in the ‘90s. It attributes all the efforts of the modern world to men while almost grudgingly recognising that such progress would ‘mean nothing without a woman or a girl’.

Steel Pulse and Prodigal Son was a must.  During the ‘80s the band closely allied themselves to Rock Against Racism, a movement set-up to oppose racial conflict. Prodigal Son is very much Michael’s anthem. The paradox is that as he grows older he moves away from his roots and identity.

Two Tribes by Frankie Goes to Hollywood mirrors the opposing and entrenched political positions adopted by Karen and Barry. Their ideological fight unleashes a ‘cold war’ between them that lasts a while. During the ‘80s fears about global nuclear conflict and warring adversaries were at a peak.  Young Gifted and Black speaks for itself and is used in Scene 8 to underscore the idealism and hope of two you black activists determined to transform the landscape of British politics but in different directions.

Your play also explores the relationship that young people have with politics and politicians. What do you think can be done to help young people, in particular those from minority backgrounds, engage with current politics?

Politics should be compulsory on the school curriculum. I hope that doesn’t sound draconian but politics is life and if young people do not understand how democracy and parliament work they will never feel the motivation to visit a ballot box. Understanding politics should be as important as learning to read regardless of ethnic background.

Michael’s character appears to strive for a government that does not need to consciously acknowledge its election of black MPs, whilst Karen wants to keep fighting for black power by pushing for initiatives and schemes – is either solution preferable?

I do not claim to have the answer but deliberately set up the question, in the hope that the tension between idealism and political pragmatism makes for a politically compelling play.  I think both Karen and Michael have their strong and weak points and I would happily have my last supper with both and argue with them until the end of time! Barry too!

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