Pearl Connor-Mogotsi

Trailblazer for African Caribbean arts in the UK

Pearl Connor-Mogotsi was a force to be reckoned with. For nearly half a century this dynamic, outspoken trailblazer campaigned for the recognition and promotion of African Caribbean arts. In the 1950s she was the first agent to represent black and other minority ethnic actors, writers and film-makers in Britain, and in the early 1960s was instrumental in setting up the Negro Theatre Workshop, one of Britain's first black theatre companies.

Pearl Cynthia Nunez, theatrical and literary agent, actress and publisher: born Diego Martin, Trinidad 13 May 1924; married 1948 Edric Connor (died 1968; one son, one daughter), 1971 Joseph Mogotsi; died Johannesburg 11 February 2005.

Pearl Connor-Mogotsi was a force to be reckoned with. For nearly half a century this dynamic, outspoken trailblazer campaigned for the recognition and promotion of African Caribbean arts. In the 1950s she was the first agent to represent black and other minority ethnic actors, writers and film-makers in Britain, and in the early 1960s was instrumental in setting up the Negro Theatre Workshop, one of Britain's first black theatre companies.

In the BBC documentary Black and White in Colour (1992), the actress Carmen Munroe spoke for thousands when she acknowledged the inspiration Connor-Mogotsi gave:

Pearl made things happen for us. She took chances. She took risks. She pushed, and we learnt a lot from her, and from the way she handled situations. She stuck her neck out. Pearl was the mother of us all.

She was born Pearl Nunez in Diego Martin, Trinidad in 1924, and was educated in a convent in Port of Spain. "I had a powerful family in the sense that my father [Albert Antonio Nunez] was a headmaster, my mother [Georgina Agnes Fitt] was a teacher and they were the ward officers of the district and registrars," she said. Pearl was the ninth of 12 children. "We had a lovely, magical, folklore-based childhood," she recalled. "I was terribly rebellious. I used to drag the Indian girls along with me, because I couldn't understand why they were treated so differently."

In Trinidad, her greatest influence was Beryl McBurnie, dedicated to promoting the culture and arts of their island and the founder of the Little Carib Theatre, where Nunez gained her first acting experience. In London, in 1948, Pearl Nunez married the popular Trinidadian folk singer and actor Edric Connor. He was looked upon as a father figure in Britain's post-war black community, and when performing artists came to Britain from Africa, Malaysia, India and the Caribbean, they would go straight to the London home of the Connor family.

Pearl Connor began law studies at London University but gave these up in order to assist in the management of her husband's career. From 1956 until 1976, she ran the Edric Connor Agency, which later became known as the Afro Asian Caribbean Agency. "I had to become knowledgeable about a wide range of cultural experiences, not just Caribbean," she said.

For example, as well as occasional black plays like A Raisin in the Sun, we had a free hand in casting Chinese actors for West End shows like The World of Suzy Wong and Flower Drum Son. Later, productions like Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Black Mikado were a breakthrough for us. At least a third of each cast was non-

European or non-white. We gave people like Floella Benjamin, Joan Armatrading and Patti Boulaye their first chances.

The Jamaican actor Lloyd Reckord, who arrived in Britain in the 1950s, says:

Pearl was a guardian angel to all us young black actors. She'd even let us sleep on the floor until we could find a place to live. And she just worked continually, pushing black actors, quarrelling with the powers-that-be, arguing "Why can't black actors get this sort of part?"

Pearl Connor trained at the Rose Bruford School of Speech and Drama and worked as a broadcaster for BBC radio, making regular appearances on their Caribbean Service. She acted in radio plays like The Barren One (1958); My People and Your People (1959), a "West Indian ballad opera"; and Jan Carew's The Riverman (1968). There were occasional appearances on the stage - including Barry Reckord's You in Your Small Corner at the Royal Court in 1960 - and in such films as Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! (1973).

The Negro Theatre Workshop was launched in 1961 at the Lyric Theatre in London with a production of A Wreath for Udomo. The company was best known for productions of Wole Soyinka's The Road (1965), staged at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, for the Commonwealth Arts Festival, and The Dark Disciples (1966), a jazz version of the St Luke Passion, which was chosen to represent Britain at the first World Festival of Black and African Arts in Senegal. The Dark Disciples was also adapted for BBC television in 1966.

Edric Connor died in 1968 and in 1971 Pearl married Joseph Mogotsi, the South African actor and lead singer of the Manhattan Brothers. Together they planned and organised tours throughout the world for black South African singers, dancers, musicians and actors.

In 1977 Pearl Connor-Mogotsi represented Trinidad and Tobago at the second World Festival of Black and African Arts in Lagos, Nigeria. In 1995 she opened the 12th International Book Fair of Radical, Black and Third World Books in London and took part in A Brighter Sun: a celebration of the life and work of Sam Selvon at the Royal Festival Hall. In 2003 she introduced a screening of Edric Connor's 1960 film Carnival Fantastique - which had been thought lost - at the National Film Theatre.

Occasionally Connor-Mogotsi was called upon to contribute to television and radio documentaries, including BBC Radio 2's Alex Pascall's Caribbean Folk Music (1995) and two productions in the BBC's 1998 Windrush season: Their Long Voyage Home, a Radio 2 series which I researched and scripted, and Black Firsts: Edric Connor for BBC2. She was also seen in Channel 4's Songs From the Golden City (1997), the story of Joseph Mogotsi and the Manhattan Brothers.

In 1972 the government of Trinidad and Tobago awarded Connor-Mogotsi their Humming Bird Silver Medal for "outstanding services to the immigrant community in the United Kingdom" but recognition did not come in Britain until 1992, when she received the National Black Women's Achievement Award.

Stephen Bourne



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