EULOGY FOR PEARL CONNOR-MOGOTSI|
by John La Rose
London, England: Eulogy for Pearl Connor-Mogotsi, born 13 May 1924, died 11 February 2005 by John La Rose
For me in Trinidad, Pearl Connor was already a legend before I met her in London. She was then Pearl Nunez, until she became Pearl Connor in London in 1948, when she married the famous stage and film actor, singer, radio performer and folklorist - Edric Connor. He was also from Trinidad.
She was the ninth of twelve children, born into an affluent middle class family, and she achieved a width and dimension both cultural, and political, which shaped her life.
In one of her many public speeches and addresses, she herself described her long years of indomitable effort and achievement: "I am here to celebrate our survival in the face of great odds. We have overcome many difficulties, hardships and pressures in our determination to succeed and I congratulate … all the people [who have borne] the torch of our Olympian struggle."
These words summarised her longlasting engagement with the wider world, which began in her early youth and extended into the rest of her life. She had highlighted her commitment to the world of art and culture and to independence, social justice and change.
TRINIDAD & TOBAGO YOUTH COUNCIL FORMED
In the 1940s she helped to form the Trinidad & Tobago Youth Council, together with Beryl McBurnie, dancer and choreographer, and her associates Jack Kelshall and Lennox Pierre, two solicitors dedicated to Federation and Independence. The Youth Council organised the Caribbean Youth Conference in 1947 and, as a young woman, Pearl travelled by schooner to the other Caribbean islands to organise and promote their ideas in favour of a West Indian Youth Federation.
It was in St Lucia, during that tour, that she met Derek Walcott and was asked by the young Derek Walcott and his friends to address his school. Before addressing his college in St Lucia, as he and his school friends desired, the head of the college wanted to know what she had to say in her talk, and in answer to his question as to whether she was a communist, she replied in her usual bold and forceful manner: "I told him I was a nationalist working for the independence of Trinidad and Tobago and for the Caribbean Federation."
As Pearl freely acknowledged: "Beryl McBurnie was my role model and one of the greatest influences of my life."
Already immersed in the dance, music, choreography, the arts, cultural research and the anti-colonial ideology of independence and social change, she arrived in England in 1948 and began her involvement with a galaxy of individuals, which included CLR James, Learie Constantine, George Padmore, the pianist Winifred Attwell and her husband-to-be Edric Connor. She had come to study law but her background in the arts eventually took her to Rose Bruford School of Speech and Drama and an acting career.
The Connors unwavering devotion and commitment to African and Caribbean independence and change meant that they welcomed in their home the indomitable leaders and fearless fighters against colonial oppression - Dr Azikiwe of Nigeria, Norman Manley of Jamaica, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. In the struggle for liberation from racism they met with, Seretse Khama and Chief Luthuli, President of the ANC, Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King and Claudia Jones.
These were visionaries, who stood up resolutely against the scourge of racial discrimination, inequality and poverty. Pearl was in that mould.
It was her return to Trinidad with Edric, who was in the film 'Fire Down Below' (with Rita Hayworth) that led to their formation of the Edric Connor Agency in 1956. With so many requests for advice from artists wanting, like Edric, to advance their careers abroad, Pearl and Edric decided to get into working with and representing artists. In her own acting career she had played cameo roles and acted in Lyndsay Anderson's film 'O Lucky Man' in 1973. Now she undertook a burden and a cause, which would have crushed other spirits. Her battles were with Equity, the actors' union, with producers, directors and for musicians and singers. She was the opening who fought for openings for African, Asian and Caribbean talent. Later with help from June Baden-Semper and Joe Mogotsi, Pearl held the fort and made what might be called unbelievable advance and progress and moved forward.
SUPPORT GROWS IN BRITAIN
But there was some support from some important quarters in Britain. As Pearl herself wrote: "The Royal Court Theatre and the Theatre Royal Stratford East, Joan Littlewood's theatre, opened their doors to innovative and experimental work and provided a solid base for our efforts."
Pearl Connor-Mogotsi was pivotal in the effort to remake the landscape for innovation and for the inclusion of African, Caribbean and Asian artists in shaping a new vision of consciousness for art and society.
A plethora of distinguished names come into view over the years, names that graced radio television and stage. Here are just some: - Norman Beaton, Nina Baden-Semper, Carmen Munroe, Joan Armatrading, Earl Cameron, Nadia Cattouse, Rudolph Walker, Ramjohn Holder, Cy Grant, Mona Hammond, Yvonne Brewster; playwrights - Barry Reckord, Errol John, Wole Soyinka, Michael Abbensetts; filmmakers - Lionel Ngakane and Horace Ove. This list is short and very incomplete but Pearl was involved in this art world with most of them.
She founded the pathbreaking Negro Theatre Workshop in 1961 and took it to the First World Festival of Black and African Arts in Dakar in 1966. There they found a meeting place of distinguished Africans and African Americans including, amongst them Langston Hughes.
Then came the moment that gave her life a new dimension. As she said in her 'Life Experience With Britain' in the book Changing Britannia: "1961 saw the arrival of 70 black performers from South Africa in a musical drama King Kong about a black boxing champion who could not get a fight with the white champion and who was driven to suicide by his frustration. We had heard about apartheid and about the struggle of black people against oppression but we knew nothing about their musicality and their theatre. The cast showed us the life in townships and the hardships faced by the people living there. They were so professional that they were compared with Americans. Through this production more eyes were opened to the possibility of using black and Asian artists in principal roles."
A NEW BEGINNING
This was the beginning of her relationship with Joe Mogotsi, Nathan Mdledle, Rufus Khoza and Ronnie Majola, who were the famous Manhattan Brothers, the musical superstars of South Africa and South Central Africa. And with them came the beginning of the relationship with Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Abdulah Ibrahim and other great names of South African music.
It was also the start of a marriage made in heaven. Pearl Connor and Joe Mogotsi were married in 1971; Edric Connor had died of a heart attack in 1968. Joe and Pearl worked together planning and organising tours throughout the world for black South African, African and Caribbean singers, dancers, musicians and actors. They participated in film, on radio and tv and various events supporting musical plays and artistic events. They both possessed an abundance of energy. It was a partnership of soulmates.
Pearl, and Joe, took great pride in the achievements of her children by her first marriage to Edric - Geraldine and Peter, in particular in their musical talents. She encouraged her various friends and admirers to attend performances of Geraldine's highly praised Carnival Messiah at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
She constantly promoted the work of other artists and she and Joe never failed to attend events and to give their support, whenever they could, however overwhelmed they were with their numerous involvements.
She was at the foundation of the Notting Hill Carnival working with its founder Claudia Jones. She continued to be involved, at different levels, with the Carnival movement, always maintaining her links with the country of her birth, Trinidad and Tobago. She had made films, including Carnival Fantastique, gave countless interviews to writers and researchers and for books, essays, radio, tv and film. There were so many public and private commitments to which she gave so much.
The Government of Trinidad and Tobago also awarded her the Hummingbird Silver Medal for her outstanding services to the immigrant community in the United Kingdom.
Despite reaching her 70s, Pearl never ceased in her extraordinary effort to achieve greater social justice. She had long been aware that the great black South African artists had been robbed of their rights under the cover of apartheid, while their families, like millions of other black South Africans, also suffered. After the fall of apartheid and with the ANC government in power, Pearl and Joe dedicated their artistic, business and legal expertise, together with immense amounts of emotional and physical energy, to ensure that the record companies redressed this injustice. She and Joe displayed a tremendous tenacity through this long battle, and with the help of prominent South African friends, dedicated South African lawyers and Cyril Ramaphosa and Dr Motlana, they finally made an historic breakthrough for the Manhattan Brothers and received an acknowledgement of the royalties due to them. However, that effort has not ended.
Conscious of the importance and universal significance of South Africa's great musical heritage and the need to chronicle its genius and musicality, Pearl co-authored with Joe the book - Mantindane 'He Who Survives' - my life with the Manhattan Brothers - that epitomises much of his life and achievement in the face of adversity. She battled for its publication and succeeded. Mantindane is and will remain an enduring part of their legacy.
She supported Joe, who continued to perform with the Manhattan Brothers, in event after event around Britain and in South Africa. She was in South Africa with Joe to attend the premiere of the film Sophiatown, when she was taken ill and died unexpectedly and suddenly.
We mourn her passing. We shall miss her.
Her total dedication to ending apartheid was a leitmotif of their lives and Pearl's dying in South Africa resonates with the symbolism of her life.
Nelson Mandela was in London recently in early February in support of the international campaign to 'Make Poverty History'. Despite his previously announced withdrawal from public events, he came to London and during his moving speech spoke words that resounded across the voluminous years of Pearl's inspiring life. I here repeat some of his words: "Massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times - times in which the world boasts of breathtaking advances in science, technology, industry and wealth accumulation - that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils."
In that moving speech against the scourge of poverty in the world he also said:
"However as long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world none of us can truly rest".
Pearl never rested. And her spirit will not rest but will inspire generations to come.
© copyright 2005 John La Rose
This Eulogy for Pearl Connor-Mogotsi was delivered on the day of her funeral at St Martin's Church, Mortimer Road, Kensal Green, London NW10, on Saturday 26 February 2005.