Features Q&A and Interviews Published 15 January 2015

In the Ring

Playwright Juliet Gilkes Romero talks to Andy Wasley about British politics, representation and her new play Upper Cut at the Southwark Playhouse.
Andy Wasley

There’s a scene early in Upper Cut that reveals a difficult debate in contemporary British politics. Karen, an idealistic black Labour activist, is arguing with Michael, the party’s deputy leader. “What’s the point of being a black politician,” asks Karen, “if you do nothing for your own people?”

“Getting elected is a victory for our people,” counters Michael, adding later: “Seventy per cent of my constituents are white. I have to be a politician who ‘happens’ to black. Not a black man who ‘happens’ to be a politician.”

This tension between idealism and political pragmatism makes for a compelling play about race politics, and for a compelling conversation with its writer, Juliet Gilkes Romero. Gilkes Romero is clearly excited to see the play’s progress in rehearsals, and to have handed over control of the story to director Lotte Wakeham. “Obviously when you’ve put your heart into something there comes a point where you have to step away and let other people get involved and take it forward,” she says. “The director has to be the ringmaster and take matters into hand.”

The ‘ringmaster’ metaphor suits the play’s combative nature. This is a story about fights: several between the play’s three characters, and one shattering struggle within the Labour movement for black representation in Parliament. Gilkes Romero warms to the theme: “The set for Upper Cut is raised, a bit like a boxing ring. They are delivering blows to each other; people have to defend themselves and their arguments.”

Those arguments are all based around debates over how to make sure Parliament represents the country it is supposed to serve. Statistics cast a stark light on the problem: today black and minority ethnic people make up nearly 13 per cent of the UK’s population but hold only 4 per cent of seats in the House of Commons. Meanwhile, as Karen points out in Upper Cut’s opening scene, unemployment, illiteracy and poverty run rife among young black people.

In an attempt to understand why Parliament seems to do such a poor job for so many people, Gilkes Romero’s play works backwards through time to British politics in the 1980s. Back then, amid strikes, riots and Thatcherism, four black Labour activists formed the Black Sections movement within the party, aiming to change a Parliament which at the time had no black MPs.

Gilkes Romero remembers the period well. “What happened in the early 80s – the discontent and the tension which spilled into violence – had to break somewhere. People realised that if we didn’t get black voices in Parliament we were going nowhere. They decided that we needed a movement within the Labour Party to mentor and encourage activists to help them become MPs.” And so the Black Sections movement was born.

Founded in 1981, Black Sections had a simple prospectus. More than 5 per cent of the UK’s population comprised black people, and by 1983 the Labour Party drew 13 per cent of its vote from ethnic minorities. Supporting black candidates, went the argument, was the right thing to do, both electorally and ethically. Black Sections wanted Labour to support shortlists for black candidates in an effort to see black MPs elected to the House of Commons for the first time.

But this was the 1980s, a fractious time for Labour. Margaret Thatcher’s grip on power seemed unassailable, and Labour seemed unelectable while Neil Kinnock struggled to control the far-left Militant Tendency within the party. “The idealism in the fight for black shortlists for candidates was incredibly impressive but heavily opposed,” says Gilkes Romero. “Neil Kinnock’s job was to drag Labour back to being elected, through all the fights with Militant. The tabloid press were really trying to run him down. They’d already said we had the ‘loony left’, and now we had black activists making ‘ludicrous demands’.

“In researching Upper Cut I spent a lot of time reviewing newspaper coverage of the 1987 election, and nearly had an embolism because of what they were saying about black people. I think a lot of what the Black Sections stood for was mangled by the media, to incredible effect. It caused fear.”

By 1984 Black Sections was beset by Militant activists who disrupted meetings and fuelled tabloid editors’ ire. For Labour’s leadership enough was enough: the Party refused to work with any group based solely on race, and even refused to endorse a black Parliamentary candidate (Russell Profitt, Black Sections’ first chair) whose Lewisham constituency had used an all-black shortlist. “I remember being horrified,” says Gilkes Romero, “thinking that if Labour was to have a chance it couldn’t do that.”

Still, four black Labour MPs were elected in 1987, the first in British history. I ask Gilkes Romero how things look now, nearly 30 years later. She counters with another question. “Today we only have 27 black and ethnic MPs. It’s not representative. Why is this?”

“I’m very proud of the black and Asian politicians we do have. But I feel that without a black caucus where people can sit down and discuss these issues, things won’t really change. Change will happen when black and Asian voters see these issues being debated across Parliament. I’d like to see more progress, but ultimately that’s down to activists. They’ve got to get out there and fight to be selected.”

Are shortlists for black candidates really the answer? “There will always be people who will say: ‘This is social engineering. It’s not fair.’ The problem is, if people aren’t given opportunities, what can you do? I think in the same way that there’s an argument for all-women shortlists, there’s an argument for shortlists for black candidates.”

While Gilkes Romero feels there’s a case to be made supporting black candidates this way, she recalls a different point of view when she was starting out in journalism in the 1980s. “When I started off as a journalist and was very much of the belief that you had to do it for yourself. I didn’t want help. The BBC was playing with ideas like having courses for black graduates, but I avoided all of that.”

Her endeavours seem to have paid off. Years of reporting from difficult locations have infused her with confidence and determination. “I came to theatre as a journalist who’d reported from tough places like Ethiopia and Haiti. I had to bring that kind of fight and determination to theatre. It hasn’t happened overnight and I’ve had to work hard to come this far.”

Gilkes Romero’s first play, At the Gates of Gaza, won the Writers’ Guild Best Play Award in 2009, but she recalls a hard time in getting it produced. “Gaza took a long time to come to production – a lot of people didn’t want to put it on. It’s frustrating; I can’t understand why people would think audiences don’t want to see these stories.”

“These stories” are about race, service and conflict, three themes which have dominated Gilkes Romero’s writing. At the Gates of Gaza looked at the experiences of a British West Indies Regiment serving in Palestine during the First World War; The Razing Cane concerned West Indian veterans exiled to Cuba between the wars; and Upper Cut again looks at how people try to serve their communities and ideals when faced with racism.

“I think that everybody wants to serve, to be part of their communities. For At the Gates of Gaza I did a lot of research into West Indian soldiers in the First World War. You had this incredible British West Indies Regiment, which fought with distinction in the Middle East – but when the war was over they were abandoned, destitute in full public view. It was a tragedy. But reading about why they went – that belief that this was the right thing to do – blew my mind.”

I sense an urgency in Gilkes Romero’s desire to tell stories about black history, but she doesn’t agree that this categorisation of historic events by race necessarily does justice to the people involved. “This is British history, not black British history. What happened with Labour in the 1980s was British history. I remember Bernie Grant arriving in Parliament in an African dashiki. That was British history.

“I love what Hilary Mantel does with history, and I want to take that approach to unravelling British history. I remember my parents talking about black veterans from the First World War, and wondering why these weren’t in the history books. I got very frustrated with the notion that black history in the UK starts with the Empire Windrush. There were black men fighting for us in wars. There were black Elizabethans. I love those stories and I will excavate them.”

Upper Cut 12 credit @ Jack Sain 2014

Gilkes Romero sees theatre as the natural venue in which to tell these stories, but worries about the difficulties in getting them told. “Theatre is too white and middle-class. Of course, people are worried about returns, about whether a story will make money. But theatre is about story-telling. I think spaces need to be more adventurous. We see a lot of imported plays now where if they’d been written by a home-grown writer they might not have seen the light of day. For young black writers who are trying to get their voices heard we need theatres that will take risks.”

This brings us back to politics. Are there enough risk-takers in the corridors of power? People willing to take a chance on young black candidates who might not be polished political stars, but who know and will fight what their communities need? In Upper Cut the answer isn’t clear-cut: Michael’s story arc sees his youthful ideals decay into craven careerism. “I think if you do anything for a certain amount of time you can lose your passion,” says Romero. She sees this as a major issue in mainstream politics, which seems more and more to be the domain of careerists who know how to play the game but not how to bring passion and authenticity to the hustings.

But is that entirely a bad thing? Surely with the birth of the professional political class there comes a desire to be more focussed in targeting all kinds of communities. Could the death of the political maverick coincide with the birth of truly representative politics?

Gilkes Romero agrees up to a point. “When you’re having to cast around for votes just to get you over the finish line, you’ve got to take communities who will vote for you seriously. In the US in 2012, Mitt Romney lost because he wasn’t prepared to accept this. I think this year our politicians will have to work harder to reach minority voters. Cameron does it – the Tories are chasing the Asian vote. And Labour’s under huge pressure to consider shortlists for black candidates and even just to have that debate. But there’s still resistance.”

However strong the resistance, in Upper Cut there’s clearly a degree of optimism. Michael is Labour’s deputy leader. As yet no black politician has risen to quite such a high level in British politics, but from time to time hopes do get raised. Last year the Conservative MP Adam Afriyie was alleged to have been preparing a leadership bid; and Labour’s Chukka Umunna is often touted as a future party leader. I ask Gilkes Romero if we’ll see a black party leader in the near future.

“I think one day it will be a possibility,” she replies. “If you can get a black politician who can inspire people, he or she could be a leader. That’s what Obama did when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 – that was an electrifying speech. We need to see more of that – politics isn’t electrifying at the moment.”

This isn’t a claim that can be levelled against Upper Cut, which buzzes with idealism, disillusionment and hope. “I think people will see themselves in each one of those characters,” says Gilkes Romero. “I’m rooting for all three. I’d happily have my last supper with them and argue with them until the end of time!”

Upper Cut opens at the start of the longest general election campaign in British history. As Gilkes Romero and I part, it’s hard not to share Gilkes Romero’s hope that the play’s deep questions about race and authenticity will find their way into real-world debates in the months ahead.

Upper Cut is at the Southwark Playhouse until 7th February.

Photos: Jack Sain.

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Andy Wasley

Andy Wasley is a journalist and campaigner, and has been writing about arts and culture since leaving the RAF in 2008. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of the gay magazine So So Gay, and has also written for the music magazine Wears the Trousers, the Times Educational Supplement, the Huffington Post, Dale and Company and other titles. He's also a keen rugby player, baker, reader and traveller.

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