Visible Women

Meet the woman behind this autumn’s biggest feminist musical

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Moya Crockett
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Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women with impressive accomplishments. This week, we’re championing Kate Prince, the woman behind this autumn’s biggest feminist musical – Sylvia

Kate Prince is nervous. The choreographer and theatre director’s sixth full-scale show, Sylvia, is about to start a three-week run at the Old Vic in London, and she’s struggling to put her feelings into words. Big West End musicals usually have years of workshops and preparation before they open their doors, she explains; Sylvia’s cast and crew have been in rehearsals for just six weeks. They are all, she says, “bricking themselves”.

“I feel really proud of the company and everyone involved, because they’ve created a full-scale musical in a third of the time that other musicals get made,” she says. “It’s a very raw piece of work, but I like it all the better for that.

“Our main purpose is to try and engage young people in theatre and storytelling and political issues, so as long as we do that, I’ll be happy.”

When Prince says “our”, she’s referring to ZooNation, the theatre and dance company she founded in 2002. The company is responsible for some of the UK’s biggest hip-hop theatre productions of the last 15 years, including 2008’s Into the Hoods – the West End’s first hip-hop dance show, based on the 1986 Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods – and Some Like It Hip Hop, a 2011 twist on the classic Marilyn Monroe film Some Like It Hot.

Prince, who has been dancing since she was four, is keen to stress that ZooNation has been creating work like Sylvia for a long time. “I don’t want people to think we’re a new company put together by the Old Vic who’ve tried to emulate Hamilton by doing historical hip-hop,” she says.

However, she is passionate about the ability of hip-hop to engage young people in theatre – something Hamilton has undoubtedly achieved. “One of our remits has always been to try and inspire young people to take part in making theatre or to go to the theatre,” she says. “Because I think theatre has this ability to inspire and motivate, which young people really need.”

Kate Prince at a rehearsal for Sylvia 

Prince hopes that Sylvia will leave people of all ages feeling similarly inspired. The hip-hop musical tells the story of Sylvia Pankhurst, the second daughter of leading suffragette and founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) Emmeline Pankhurst.

Emmeline and her eldest daughter Christabel are arguably the most well-known of the suffragettes. But Prince says she finds Sylvia more intriguing. “I found it a more compelling challenge to try and tell a story about a lesser-known person,” she says.

Prince also sees Sylvia’s story as being “more relatable to a modern audience” than those of her mother and sister. A proud socialist and anti-fascist, Sylvia had many disagreements with Emmeline and Christabel about how the WSPU should be run. For years, the pair refused to affiliate themselves with political parties or lend their support to other social and political causes, believing that the issue of votes for women required their absolute attention.

Sylvia, in contrast, believed that the fight for the vote could not be disentangled from other issues such as class inequality. (In 1913, members of the WSPU voted to expel her for speaking at a meeting about Irish workers involved in an industrial dispute.) 

Her politics diverged from her mother and sister’s even more sharply when World War One rolled around, and Emmeline and Christabel threw their support behind British military action. Sylvia, who opposed the war and despised her mother’s jingoism about the British Empire, was appalled.

“I think the things she cared about 100 years ago were things we care about now,” says Prince. “She saw everybody as equal regardless of gender, sexuality or race.”

In 1920, Sylvia became the first newspaper editor in Britain to employ a black journalist (she asked the Jamaican poet Claude McKay to write for her socialist newspaper The Workers’ Dreadnought). Later in life she moved to Ethiopia, where she supported the country’s Emperor Haile Selassie in opposing an invasion by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime. In other words, Sylvia was one of the closest things the suffragettes had to an intersectional feminist.

“She was just really ahead of her time,” says Prince. But that’s not the only reason she thinks modern audiences will empathise with Sylvia. “She was also right at the heart of this very complex family story. With the Brexit referendum in the UK, I think we can all relate to how politics can divide a family.”

Sylvia Pankhurst in 1918, the year the first women in Britain got the vote 

Predictably, there has been some debate about the casting of the production, which sees Beverly Knight play Emmeline Pankhurst and Genesis Lynea star as Sylvia. But Prince has no time for the argument that black or Asian actors shouldn’t be able to play characters based on white figures from history.

“It’s not a documentary, it’s a piece of art,” she says. “And it’s not a story about race, it’s a story about gender. So I’m casting actresses and performers who I believe to be the most talented and the best suited to the roles.”

When casting the play, she explains, she wasn’t thinking about what “Emmeline Pankhurst [was] like 100 years ago. It was about [asking]: what would Emmeline Pankhurst be like today? It’s a modern piece of theatre, and modern London doesn’t look the same as it did 100 years ago. So why should we have an all-Caucasian cast?”

Ultimately, Prince hopes that the show will get more people thinking about the history of women’s rights. She cites the example of a 16-year-old boy, a member of ZooNation’s youth company, who came into the Old Vic to help her with a rehearsal. When he asked what the play was about, Prince told him that it was about the suffragettes. He replied, “What’s a suffragette?”

The thought of reaching people like that teenager is what keeps Prince going. “I hope someone like him might see this play and think twice about women and politics,” she says. “I hope someone like him could see our show and begin to have an appreciation, politically and historically, of gender politics – thanks to the style of the storytelling and the music.

“And maybe, someone like him might think twice about women or how he treats or speaks about women in the future,” she continues. “It’s all about making history relevant.”

SYLVIA is on at The Old Vic from 3-22 September. Get tickets from the box office by calling 0844 871 7628 or at oldvictheatre.com.

The Woman of the Week series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Images: Simon Prince / Manuel HarlanGetty Images