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Negro Beverley Knight Defends Being Cast As Caucasian Emmeline Pankhurst:

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Negro Beverley Knight Defends Being Cast As Caucasian Emmeline Pankhurst:

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Negro UK soul singer Beverley Knight has defended her casting as Emmeline Pankhurst in a new musical, saying there should be no issue with a black performer ­playing someone white.

The singer is one of the stars of Sylvia, which opens at the Old Vic next month and tells the story of the Suffragette movement through a variety of musical styles, including R&B and hip-hop.

Responding on social media to criticism of her casting, Knight told one detractor: “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?”

Appearing on BBC One’s The One Show, Knight said she felt a “huge responsibility” in playing Pankhurst, mother of Sylvia and a leading light in the fight for women’s rights.

“This was a woman who was so ­important, not just to British history but world history, because her actions sparked the worldwide movement for direct action for women’s suffrage,” she said.

“And 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.”

The musical has the backing of Dr Helen Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst’s granddaughter, who has acted as ­historical adviser on the project.

Knight said Dr Pankhurst was “cool” with the hip-hop element. She ­explained: “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.”

The musical charts the sometimes difficult relationship between Emmeline and her daughter. “They were two very strong women who had very ­different views about reaching the same goal,” Knight said.

She has ­appeared in several West End musicals, including The Bodyguard and Cats. She has ­spoken previously of wanting to play more diverse roles, saying: “I don’t know if it’s direct racism so much as people expecting a certain stereotype from you, and that has been a ­hindrance in my career.”

The casting for Sylvia echoes that of Hamilton, the hit Broadway and West End musical, in which a racially ­diverse cast plays white figures from history including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton’s creator, has explained: “This is a story about America then, told by America now.” Thomas Kail, its director, said: “We never imagined casting the show in any other way – never for one second. We are very conscious of what we are doing here. This is not colour-blind casting.”

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