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‘Pankhurst: Freedom or Death’

Emmeline Pankhurst may be the most important person in your life you’ve never heard of.

Leader of the suffragette movement in the early 1900s in England, Pankhurst is the subject of a new one-woman show to premiere at Ashland Contemporary Theatre.

Written and performed by ACT artistic director Jeannine Grizzard and directed by Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran Peggy Rubin, the play encounters Pankhurst in 1913 at a critical moment in the struggle for women’s suffrage.

“Pankhurst: Freedom or Death” will show at 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, April 7-29, at the Ashland Community Center, 59 Winburn Way. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online at ashlandcontemporarytheatre.org, at Paddington Station in Ashland, and Grocery Outlet in Medford, or at the door. Call 541-646-2971 for information.

Grizzard uses Pankhurst’s own words to explore her personal battles.

“There are six times in the play where Emmeline gives parts of her famous “Freedom or Death” speech for a few paragraphs before changing topics,” Grizzard says. “In weaving together direct quotations from the 1913 speech, I directly quoted or adapted narratives and sentiments from Pankhurst’s autobiography, ‘My Own Story.’ Of course, there is some original writing too, but whenever possible in getting into the thick of a subject, I let Emmeline speak for herself from her memoir.”

Grizzard’s historical drama probes the deeper issues behind women’s militancy against a world of governance by and for men.

Grizzard wrote the play to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. In Britain, the 1918 Representation of the People Act enfranchised all men, as well as all women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications, with the vote. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted American women the right to vote in 1920.

Without the pressure of Pankhurst’s militant suffragettes, the political stalemate could have lasted another decade.

“What inspired me most was Emmeline’s fiery words,” Grizzard says. “Ten years ago I saw a list by The Guardian newspaper of the greatest speeches of the 20th century and discovered Pankhurst’s ‘Freedom or Death.’ It was given in Connecticut in 1913 at a big rally hosted by Katharine Hepburn’s mother, a prominent suffragist. Emmeline’s impeccable argument and eloquence captured my heart.

“Since I had performed for many years another of those great speeches — Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own,’ I decided I had to learn Emmeline’s. A few years ago I performed it for students at Rogue Community College. When they wanted to know more about Emmeline herself and the movement as a whole, I came up with the device of her planning the speech while in Paris, as a fugitive from her last imprisonment.”

“Pankhurst” is the second collaboration between Rubin and Grizzard. Together they mounted Molly Tinsley’s one-woman show “Pompadour” in 2013.

“Like ‘Pompadour,’ ” Rubin says, “the heroine plays all the important people in her life, so ‘Pankhurst’ has a dozen characters, from Winston Churchill to other suffragettes.

“Jeannine’s engagement with Emmeline’s passion-filled story captured me from the beginning. I knew too little about the fervor and dedication of the women willing to fight and die for the right to vote, a right I take so casually and sometimes ignore altogether,” Rubin adds.

This play demonstrates the sheer knock-down bravery of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers seeking to win the rights of full citizenship in a decades-long “civil war” fought 100 years ago, she says.

“Pankhurst” is Grizzard’s first full-length play. As an actor, she specializes in the solo performance genre, touring “Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own” for seven years and premiering in the titular role of “Pompadour.”

Jeannine Grizzard - Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune