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Pearl Connor-Mogotsi 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.

See Part II- in The Chronicle
http://www.thechronicle.demon.co.uk

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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