Emmeline Pankhurst raps:
Looked down by neighbors,
labeled as traitors and shamed as beasts.
We protested with peace, we protested with speech.
But we’re still beaten in the streets and hit by police.
Over the last century, countless white actresses have portrayed Pankhurst, the leader of the British suffragette movement, the most recent being Meryl Streep. Now, it is the turn of black British rapper Roxxxan to don the famous green-and-purple sash as the star of an upcoming hip-hop musical about the suffragette. The musical, which boasts an all women-of-color cast, is being dubbed as Britain’s answer to Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit musical which tells the story of one of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton.
“All of us didn’t feel hugely like we can connect with the story [of the suffragettes],” says co-creator and writer Rebecca Phillips (who goes by the stage name Omahrose). “We didn’t see our own faces in these women who did some incredible things.”
Phillips set out to change that. She worked with composer and co-creator Mark Hodge, and hip-hop artists Roxxxan and Oracy Chambers to create a teaser for their planned musical titled Suffrageddon. The show was commissioned by stand-up comedian Deborah Frances-White (who co-hosts the popular podcast The Guilty Feminist). The material, which currently stretches to around 12 minutes, was performed during a live recording of The Guilty Feminist earlier this month. The performance was met with a standing ovation.
Suffrageddon is modern retelling of Pankhurst’s story and women’s suffrage movement. The musical includes other notable suffragettes, such as Sylvia Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcett, and Sophia Duleep Singh (the latter is an Indian-British militant suffragette that has been described as a “rock star”).
Phillips says hip-hop is a powerful medium that connects communities and transforms storytelling. She says hip-hop was key to reframing a narrative that often excludes women of color. “We hope that young women of color are going to feel more connected to this reframing of the story,” Phillips says.
Hamilton is an obvious source of inspiration. “But hopefully we try to do our own thing with it too,” Phillips says. And just like the founding fathers, the suffragette relationship with race was at times fraught. But Phillip says the musical won’t shy away from race. Phillips hopes to develop Suffrageddon into a full-length show by the end of the year. A Kickstarter campaign to help fund the development of the musical quickly surpassed its goal.
The musical comes at an opportune time. Britain is currently celebrating a hundred years since some women won the right to vote. As Phillips puts it, “it’s an important time for women.”