Ashland Contemporary Theatre’s recent production “Pankhurst: Freedom or Death,” directed by Peggy Rubin, is a theatrical tour de force written and performed by Jeannine Grizzard. Set in England in 1913, the play examines the history and issues involved in the women’s fight for the right to vote, finally granted in 1918. Grizzard had researched a speech by Emmeline Pankhurst (a leader in the suffrage movement). She decided to develop the material while attending a Social Artistry Workshop given by Jean Houston and Peggy Rubin. The challenge was: What project can you come up with to change the world?
EH: How did Emmeline Pankhurst make her mark on history?
JG: She created modern media coverage of activism. Technology had advanced to the point where they could take pictures of a protest and have them published in newspapers the next day. Staging events for the media to cover was her introduction to the twentieth century, which paved the way for Gandhi and Martin Luther King, making big demonstrations and relying specifically on the press.
EH: Who were the Suffragettes?
JG: Suffragettes were British suffragists. The distinction between a woman suffragist and a Suffragette is civil disobedience and militant actions.
PR: It was effective damage, very carefully executed, never at any cost to life; and they were careful to make sure that pets were never anywhere near where they were blowing things up or setting things on fire. It cost the government a lot in terms of money.
JG: Some Suffragettes were beaten by police; some went to jail; some were force-fed during hunger strikes; some actually died.
EH: Peggy, you dedicated your work on this play to the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. You stated that, “They remind us that Mrs. Pankhurst’s fight for freedom against injustice, prejudice, and cruelty is not over.” How did that come about?
PR: We need to know what our history is. Marjory Stoneman Douglas was an American suffragist and an activist. Those are her students. The condition of women and children in the world is still pretty fierce. There are things that we need to be doing about it.
JG: What our foremothers did to get politically empowered is huge. To be inspired by the level of commitment of Emmeline Pankhurst, a woman who was never personally a victim: She had a nice middle class life, a nice middle class home, good friends, good health, loving marriage, great kids. And she was out there every day dragging her trunks from hotel room to hotel room, giving speeches, over and over again, organizing rallies, putting people together, networking until she was ready to drop, for the benefit of people who were facing challenges that she was not facing.
PR: Our foremothers were ferociously courageous. We’ve got a wonderful heritage in these women’s lives. It would behoove us to use that a little more forcefully, a little more courageously. They started in their living rooms, and then they went to the women textile workers. They started tiny, but it lit a fire. I want everybody to walk out of this play being willing to go another step. She was unconquerable in the challenges that she was facing. I want us all to be as daring as she was.
EH: What is our next step?
JG: People need to question authority, to get broad sources of information and look at solutions that are doable.
PR: Get out in the streets, like the young people are doing. Register people to vote. Emmeline Pankhurst reminds us that you can go a long way for what you believe is right.