Beverley Knight defends her casting as Emmeline Pankhurst

The singer is to play the suffragette leader at the Old Vic theatre in September

Beverley Knight has hit out at critics of her casting as Emmeline Pankhurst in a new musical by pointing to the ubiquity of white actors playing characters of other ethnicities.

Knight will play the leader of the British suffragette movement, with Genesis Lynea taking the titular role of Sylvia Pankhurst, Emmeline’s daughter, in the play, which opens next month at the Old Vic theatre.

Responding to a detractor on Twitter who suggested that she did not have the right skin colour for the role, Knight tweeted:

You mean like the hundreds of years of white actors playing Othello, Cleopatra, any number of Asian characters.... like that? Sometimes it’s better to keep quiet eh Alan? 🙄🤫

— Beverley Knight (@Beverleyknight) August 2, 2018

Following in the footsteps of Hamilton, a hip-hop retelling of the life of the American founding father Alexander Hamilton, Sylvia tells the story of the campaign for women’s suffrage through a combination of dance, hip-hop, soul and funk.

On BBC One’s The One Show on Wednesday, Knight said that the casting of Sylvia was a reflection of progress in theatre. “It’s just interesting that 100 years later, here’s me as a black woman playing the role of someone who was white.

“It’s just kind of marking the direction of where theatre is going – the diversity, the inclusivity, and the fact that the music is much more street and modern and contemporary. I think Emmeline would like it.

“Most of the show is sung. It’s at the Old Vic, so people who go and see shows at the Old Vic would expect something a little more traditional. This is anything but. I’m not rapping, but I am speaking rhythmically as well as singing the way that people know me to sing.

“There’s a lot of hip-hop, there’s a lot of R&B, there’s a lot of funk. It’s telling this seismic story in a really fresh way. It’s glorious, it really is.”

Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst at Waterloo Station, London in 1911.
Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst at Waterloo Station, London, in 1911. Photograph: © IWM

Written by Kate Prince and Priya Parmar, with original music by Josh Cohen and DJ Walde, Sylvia tells the story of the sometimes difficult relationship between the Pankhursts.

In an earlier interview, Prince, whose company ZooNation will produce the piece, said: “Politics and families are a tricky combination, and in the case of the Pankhursts, it severed ties between them. Ultimately we are telling the story of the price each of the Pankhurst family paid for their political purpose.”

Sylvia is at the Old Vic from 3-22 September.


Damien Gayle

The GuardianTramp

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