Tribute to Pearl Connor-Mogotsi

Pearl Connor-MogotsiPearl came from Trinidad to the UK in 1948 to study Law during the era of the Windrush and made a tremendous contribution to the arts and racial justice.

Pearl is respected for her pioneering trailblazing work as a campaigner and activist for encouraging the recognition and promotion of African Caribbean arts. In 1956 she and her actor husband the late Edric Connor (set up the Edric Connor agency) this was later renamed Afro-Asian Agency in the 1970s. Representing Caribbean, Malaysia, India and Africa, actors, writers and film-makers in Britain. Although as an actors agent she represented all races from her address in Shaftesbury Avenue. In the early 1960s Pearl was instrumental in setting up the Negro Theatre Workshop, one of Britain's first black theatre companies. She was loved and respected by many and will be remembered.

She continued to work with her husband Joe Mogotsi a South African musician with the Manhattan Brothers.

Pearl continued running her literary agency and black music publishing as well as acting as a consultant in all areas of the arts, until her death.

Articles from

A Blaze of Creativity

Cultural artist Pearl Connor-Mogotsi is perfectly at home at the speakers' podium. Originally trained in the dramatic arts, Connor-Mogotsi has added an historian's touch. In "Our Olympian Struggle" she portrays a dazzling microcosm of black arts, letters and cultural politics in Britain from the 1950s to the present day. Featured are over sixty renowned writers, intellectuals, dramatists, artists, actors, singers and songwriters.

Part I, presented here, includes tributes to some of the best minds and creative talents: C.L.R.James, George Padmore, Rudolph Dunbar, Cy Grant, Paul Robeson, Winifred Atwell, Tom Mboya, George Lamming, Nadia Cattouse, Andrew Salkey, the Caribbean Arts Movement, and the Notting Hill Carnival. Part II will appear in the next issue.

Pearl Connor-Mogotsi is herself a part of this explosion of black creativity, and a tireless campaigner for cultural arts and theatre. Her honours include the government of Trinidad and Tobago's Humming Bird Silver Medal for outstanding services to the immigrant community in the United Kingdom, and the National Black Women's Achievement Award for Entertainment and Arts in Britain.

"Our Olympian Struggle", written as an opening address to an international bookfair, is more than a personal trip down memory lane. Many will find it an inspiring rendition of the last fifty years of black cultural history in Britain and its Pan-African links.

Connor-Mogotsi's presentation is also a powerful antidote to popular ignorance. It reveals little-known aspects of black/white cultural contact, competition and conflict in British arts and society.

Our Olympian Struggle
By Pearl Connor-Mogotsi
Part one

I am here today to celebrate our survival in the face of great odds. We have overcome many difficulties, hardships and pressures in our determination to succeed.

Coming as I did in the 50s from a background steeped in the, culture and politics of the Caribbean, I was reassured by the good relations existing between the new immigrants and the British, who were still flushed with the memory of our wartime contribution.

I found an elite and select group of professionals, writers, artists and politicians amongst whom were C.L.R. James, George Padmore, Sam Morris, Dr. David Pitt and Learie Constantine (both to be honoured later by the establishment) and Rudolph Dunbar, Cy Grant, Winifred Atwell and Edric Connor whom I later married.

Edric was at his peak, singing in BBC Radio series and taking part in stage plays and revues at the Players Theatre, and Cy Grant was singing the news in a BBC magazine programme from 1957-1960. Although this exposure brought him fame, Cy was very frustrated by the fact that none of his other talents as an actor were recognized and he was stuck in a hole of type casting until he broke loose and went to Leicester to play the leading role of Othello demonstrating the extent of his talents. Rudolph Dunbar was conducting at the Albert Hall which was a first for a black Caribbean man and we were all thrilled by his success.

Fifties interest in Africa

The 50's also saw a great interest in Africa and films were made of the Alan Paton novel 'Cry the Beloved Country' which starred Canada Lee, Sidney Poitier and Edric Connor. This proved to be their introduction to apartheid South Africa that both shocked and excited them. There was also a film made in Kenya 'West of Zanzibar' during the Kikuyu uprising, in which Edric played an African Chief. But, for him, the invitation to play at Stratford-upon-Avon, at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, by Tony Richardson, brought the first black actor to that famous seat of British Theatre in 'Pericles' playing the narrator. This was in 1958, and the following year Paul Robeson was invited to play Othello opposite Mary Ure at the same venue. We had broken the juju, no longer excluded from the Mecca of the Theatre.

Meanwhile, Winifred Atwell was breaking records with her classical honky-tonk piano. She was featured at the Palladium and at other major venues all over Britain. She immortalized the steelband by recording an album 'Ivory and Steel', marrying the old and new in a dynamic combination of rhythm and classical techniques.

Around this time, there was a large contingent arriving from Africa, both of aspiring politicians and musicians. Julius Nyerere from Tanzania, Joshua Nkomo from Rhodesia, Seretse Khama from Botswana (who was to change the history of Southern Africa by his marriage to a white woman), and Tom Mboya from Kenya, the ill-fated young lieutenant of Jomo Kenyatta, soon to be assassinated.

Caribbean leaders and literature

And leaders from the Caribbean countries like Norman Manley from Jamaica, Grantley Adams from Barbados, T. A. Marryshow from Grenada and Odo Bumham from Guyana, going in and out of the Colonial Office, lobbying for our independence. Sam Morris was organizing the League of Coloured Peoples to assist and guide our people, but he had limited facilities. I remember a group of us activists meeting Chief Albert Luthuli, President of the ANC, on his way through London to collect the Nobel Prize in 1960, and later meeting Dr. Martin Luther King when he was in transit to Stockholm for the same prize. Claudia Jones, editor of the West Indian Gazette knew King well and was instrumental in arranging for some of us to meet him at my home to discuss ways and means of assisting his movement. He was very quiet and seemed tired and out of it all, but we talked to him about possibilities. Claudia had earlier organized a march on the American Embassy at Grosvenor Square to coincide with the march upon Washington, which was supported by many of our leading artists and writers, like George Lamming, Jan Carew, John La Rose, Pearl Prescod, Nadia Cattouse and many others of us, as well as members of the host community, sympathetic to our cause.

This brings me to Dr. Rosie Poole, the Dutch activist and writer. She organized a production of protest poetry to be performed at the Aldeburgh Festival in the heart of the English establishment, from her collection 'Beyond the Blues', against a background of jazz. Cleo Laine, Nadia Cattouse, Lloyd Reckord and I, performed with great success, poems dealing with the civil rights struggle, 'Rosa Parks' and 'Ma Rainey'.

By the mid 50's, the cream of our literary figures had moved into London. Edgar Mittelholzer, Jan Carew, George Lamming, Andrew Salkey, Sam Selvon, Vidia Naipaul and Barry Reckord. The BBC established the Caribbean Service, with Earnest Eytle and Willie Richardson producing, and our writers were featured through their plays and novels. Those taking part in broadcasts were Carmen Munroe, Barbara Assoon, Lloyd Reckord, Bari Johnson, Nadia Cattouse and myself. But one of the finest actors working with us was Errol John who won the Observer Prize for his play 'Moon on a Rainbow Shawl', which changed his life dramatically. He became involved in getting his play performed at the Royal Court Theatre and later went on to the United States. But, things did not seem to work out as he expected and he went on to the Caribbean and then back to the U.K., trying to find his dream realized. This was not to be, and he died frustrated and alone without the support which he needed.

Windrush arrival

With the arrival of the 'Empire Windrush', the British began to feel the threat of black Caribbean immigrants. There was a real culture shock, with black people going up and down the streets in organdie dresses, with straw hats and paper bags carrying their prized possessions, with towels around their necks for scarves. However, they knew more about England and the British, than the British knew of them. It was the climate that foxed them!

Many Africans were flooding into England for education and work and Wole Soyinka, studying at Leeds University, began writing for the Theatre. By the mid sixties his plays were being performed at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East and at the Royal Court Theatre.

Early in the 60's Jack Hylton brought the first Township Jazz musical 'King Kong' out of South Africa to the West End and this had a tremendous impact on audiences who had only heard of that troubled land and were stunned to find this great music, song and dance tradition pouring out on the stage. Then came two amazing plays by Athol Fugard, 'The Island' and 'Sizwe Bansi is Dead' demonstrating the plight of the people of South Africa under apartheid and the conditions under which prisoners were living on Robben Island.

The year 1966 saw the first World Festival of Black and African Arts held in Senegal, with a great foregathering of world famous black and African writer and artists, including Langston Hughes and Marpessa Dawn. The Negro Theatre Workshop established by me in 1965 was sponsored by the Commonwealth Office to attend and represent Great Britain. There was now a distinct improvement in relations between us and the host country only to be shattered by Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' speech which brought an overt increase in prejudice.

Kamau, Kelso and Claudia

The Caribbean Artists Movement founded at the end of 1966, marshalled the literary, academic and performance skills of Caribbean writers and artists. Andrew Salkey, Edward Kamau Brathwaite and John La Rose were the catalysts. Kamau broke with tradition and presented what he called 'Nation Language' - different rhythms in poetry. He performed successfully in concert at the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre introducing this new treatment of his poetry in performance.

Notting Hill Carnival (the finest Street Theatre in Europe), took off in 1965, but we cannot forget the effect that the murder of Kelso Cochrane had on the whole community of Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove, coming as it did after the race riots in 1958/1959. These events brought a cohesion and understanding amongst the Afro-Caribbeans which was lacking before and eventually brought them all together in the celebration of Carnival.

Claudia Jones did much to promote it in the early stages as did Amy Ashwood Garvey wife of Marcus Garvey. It was around her home that we all foregathered to mourn Kelso Cochrane's death. Amy had worked closely with CLR James and George Padmore in getting support for Haile Selassie in his struggle against Mussolini. She was also instrumental in organizing the 5th Pan African Congress.

The development of carnival was constantly challenged and provoked by the powers that be, bringing as it did crowds of people mixing freely together on the streets of Notting Hill in inter-racial harrnony. It was the tenacity and perseverance of the practitioners and local people whose support for this annual festival caused it to survive and prosper.

Source: Opening Address at the 12th International Bookfair of Radical Black and Third World Books - Thursday 23rd March 1995 at the Camden Centre, London, England. © Pearl Connor-Mogotsi

The struggle continues

In this saga of cultural triumphs and travails from the postwar period to the present, Pearl Connor-Mogotsi speaks of the many distinguished writers and artists who have contributed to Black British literary and performance achievements.

Our Olympian Struggle
By Pearl Connor-Mogotsi
Part two

Black representation in quality drama was clearly absent in the 1970s. On television, situation comedies filled the gap. By 1972/75 'Love thy neighbour' scored many successes with Nina Baden-Semper and Rudolph Walker becoming household names. By 1978 Michael Abbensetts 'Empire Road' set a precedent, providing a vehicle for a black cast, a black director Horace 0ve and himself, Abbensetts, a black writer.

On stage, the musicals 'Hair', 'Jesus Christ Superstar', the 'Black Mikado' and 'Showboat', gave opportunities to many young up and coming black performers, and took them into the professional stream. Theatres like the Tricycle and the Cochrane have showcased many Caribbean and African writers and there has been a breakthrough on the Opera circuit. Whereas before only Glyndebourne ever mounted productions like 'Porgy and Bess', in recent years the Royal Opera House has hosted a black company performing in Opera, featuring Willard White, the distinguished Jamaican baritone.

The English National Opera has also accepted several young black singers in their productions, which was virtually impossible twenty years ago. The National Theatre has also inaugurated a policy of including black artists in their productions and bringing them into the mainstream.

Another important breakthrough is the number of trained black directors and producers who have been working tirelessly to prove their competence in the Theatre. Anton Phillips of the Carib Theatre, Yvonne Brewster of Talawa, Joan Ann Maynard of the Black Theatre Co-op, Alby James of the National and Temba, and Malcolm Frederick an independent producer. These directors now have a plethora of plays by black playwrights like Michael Abbensetts who wrote the scripts for two very successful soaps, 'The Fosters' 1976 and 'Empire Road' 1978, about black people in Britain.

Then came 'Desmonds' 1989/94 which was written by Trix Worrell about a family in a barber shop. The comedy was very entertaining, though many felt that it did not show our real lives. Norman Beaton, Carmen Munroe and Ram John Holder headed a very talented cast.


Very few serious roles are written for blacks although we have fine dramatists like Derek Walcott, Wole Soyinka, Errol John, Mustapha Matura, Earl Lovelace and Felix Cross among others. Soyinka's plays received professional exposure both at the Theatre Royal, Stratford and the Royal Court Theatre which was a great supporter of black and Afro - Caribbean Theatre. Derek Walcott's 'O Babylon' was premiered at the Riverside Studios Hammersmith, and several of his plays were performed at Stratford upon Avon's Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. Earl Lovelace's ' The Dragon can't Dance' was staged at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, directed by Yvonne Brewster.

I remember going to visit Earl Lovelace in the village of Matura where he was living a Gauguin lifestyle in a wooden cottage on the banks of a river, surrounded by coconut, mango and orange trees. Everywhere were little tropical insects and it was not uncommon to see a multicoloured snake wriggle across the grass. But, the most amazing thing was the huge refrigerator standing in the kitchen where there was no electricity or running water. I was surprised and enquired from Earl what a fridge was doing there if it could not work. He laughed and opened the door, and there were the manuscripts of his great novels 'The Dragon can't Dance' and 'The Wine of Astonishment'. He explained that he was saving his manuscripts from termites and ants which abounded in the bush.

Historic figures like Toussaint L'Ouverture have been immortalized in a play by CLR James. Ira Aldridge, that 18th century actor who scored great triumphs on the stage, was remembered in a play by Lonne Elder 'A Splendid Summer' produced and performed by Malcolm Frederick. Nevertheless, most of our existing drama does not immortalize our heroes and until we do this we will continue to leave a huge gap in the appreciation of our own people.

The most serious setback facing black theatre practitioners is the need for permanent premises as part of the British theatre establishment. Some progress has been made by Yvonne Brewster and Talawa in securing the Cochrane. Here is an accessible building available to all with a reputation for representing black theatre practitioners.

"We need our own icons"

However, there is an absence of any historical memory or sense of continuity regarding our contribution to the Theatre and the Arts. The vision is of a striving struggling community, constantly building structures which are repeatedly pulled down. Our salvation lies in constructing organizations, support groups and individuals in their chosen professions. There is a virus which strikes at the heart of our endeavours, a legacy of our colonial past. It is disloyalty and the feeling that the grass is greener on the other side. Nobody will honour us or keep our image alive or remember our contribution. We have to do so ourselves and record our history through. books, literature, music and the Arts. We need our own icons, our own heroes. Our survival depends on overcoming our difficulties and dealing with issues in society like immigration and racism.

Re-discovering Women

If we are going to record our own history we must re-discover our invisible women. Let me just mention a few of them.

Mary Seacole who as a mature woman went to the Crimean War in 1854. She had tried to enrol in the UK with Florence Nightingale but was rejected. So, she took herself to the front, opened a clinic, where she prescribed natural cures (better known as bush medicine), which she had learnt from her mother in Jamaica and practised in Panama. She successfully nursed soldiers with cholera and yellow fever. Those of us who know the value of these traditional cures in our little islands where medicine was inaccessible to the ordinary people, know about Aloe vera, Boiscanno for cough, fever grass and lemon tea and other cures about which commercial traders like the Body Shop has become aware in recent years. When Mrs Seacole returned to the UK after the war, her work went unrecognized, until she wrote a book named 'The wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands'. This was published in 1857 and reprinted in 1984 since when her own people have decided to honour her memory.

Claudia Jones was the editor of The West Indian Gazette and was instrumental in promoting the Notting Hill Carnival. She was a great organizer and managed to unite the Afro/Asian/Caribbean community by inspiring us all to greater efforts in our community activity and support for world causes which related to us. She had a magical way of persuading people to get along with one another and to see the bigger landscape.

The struggles these women had are now being re-enacted in our contemporary world. Just to mention a few, there is Pansy Jeffries whose tremendous work in Ladbroke Grove involved caring for the old and destitute black people and the Pepper Pot Club which she founded to create a meeting place for them. She created a forum to promote awareness about the plight of black people in Britain.

And on an even more personal note, Beryl McBurnie whose great work in the dance and founding the Little Carib Theatre in Trinidad was an inspiration to generations of young Trinidadians. She was instrumental in arranging scholarships for some of her dancers and educated all who came within her ambit in national pride, which permeated everything she did.

We must always bear in mind the enormous cost personal involvement in any struggle inevitably has on relationships and families. In this respect 1 would like to quote Nelson Mandela in his recently published autobiography 'Long Walk to Freedom', concerning his wife Nomzano Winnie Mandela:

'Comrade Nomzano and myself contracted our marriage at a crucial time in the struggle for liberation in our country. Owing to the pressures of our shared commitment to the ANC and the struggle to end apartheid, we were unable to enjoy a normal family life. Despite these pressures our love for each other and our devotion to our marriage grew and intensified. During the two decades I spent on Robben Island, she was an indispensable pillar of support to myself personally. Comrade Nomzamo accepted the onerous burden of raising our children on her own. She endured the persecutions heaped upon her by the government with exemplary fortitude and never wavered from her commitment to the freedom struggle. Her tenacity reinforced my personal respect, love and growing affection' and he continues 'But just as I am convinced that my wife's life while I was in prison was more difficult than mine, my own return was also more difficult for her than it was for me. She married a man who soon left her, that man became a myth and then that myth returned home and proved to be just a man after all.'

We, the women of the world, must give our support to those fighting against great odds. oppression, character assassination, marginalization and disloyalty, and like the words of the old spiritual says, be watchful even of those nearest and dearest.

'I saw my brother the other day
I gave him my right hand
And just as soon as ever my back was turned
He scandalized my name
You call that a brother, no, no
You call that a brother, no
You call that a brother, no no
Scandalize my name'

Source: Opening Address at the 12th International Bookfair of Radical Black and Third World Books - Thursday 23rd March 1995 at the Camden Centre, London, England. © Pearl Connor-Mogotsi

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