Pearl Prescod’s star rose high in her day. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, she became the first black actress to perform with the National Theater Company, under the direction of Laurence Olivier, in London in 1965. She has performed in the West End and on television, recorded radio plays, worked on the cabaret circuit and was also a prominent activist alongside Claudia Jones and Amy Ashwood Garvey. So why isn’t Prescod better known today?
In part because her career was cut short by an untimely death – she had a brain hemorrhage at age 46, just a year after her breakout role in the National Theatre. But those who excavate its forgotten legacy today think there’s more to it than that. Coming to Britain in 1954, at age 34, on a music scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, she was part of a larger group of well-educated and highly politicized Caribbean figures who arrived post-war. to make equally impressive strides in culture and awareness around the race, but whose names have since been forgotten.
The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) published a pamphlet on Prescod’s life as part of an effort to illuminate the neglected histories of this generation of Caribbean artists and intellectuals. There is much to discover in the case of Prescod’s short but brilliant life and work: in 1958 she appeared at the Royal Court in Barry Reckord’s Flesh to a Tiger – a play directed by Tony Richardson but written by a black writer about the Caribbean with an all-black cast, which broke with the theatrical expectation of the time to speak with its own natural accents. She campaigned with Equity to secure more roles for black British actors who were discriminated against, even for their Caribbean accents, and marched to the US embassy in a protest parallel to Martin Luther King’s historic 1963 march on Washington. She also appeared in the 1964 made-for-TV civil rights show called Freedom Road: Songs of Negro Protest.
Their son, Colin Prescod, was born in Trinidad and lived with his aunts and grandmother until he was 13, when he joined Pearl at her home in Ladbroke Grove, west London, where she raised him as a single mother. He remembers seeing her perform at the Royal Court on her first night in London. He also met Olivier when his mother was cast in the role of Tituba – a Barbadian slave accused of witchcraft – in the National’s staging of The Crucible, opposite Frank Finlay, Michael Gambon and Anthony Hopkins. He was a teenager when she got the role and didn’t appreciate her magnitude, not least because the company had just been born a few years earlier under Olivier. “I was in sixth grade at the time and was backstage in the huge dressing room when Olivier walked in. My mother was anxious to see her son introduced to him, so she said ‘Sir Laurence, this is my son…’ and Sir Laurence says to me, ‘Aren’t you proud of Pearly?’”
Prescod told Olivier that her son was considering a career as an actor, but that she was trying to encourage him to complete his studies. “Laurence Olivier said ‘Pearly is right, you really should finish your studies because acting is a hard life – we’re not always working.’ I really wanted to go to the boards, but it turned my head. I decided to pay attention to my A levels and then I went to university.”
Clint Dyer, the National Theater’s current deputy artistic director, says Prescod’s achievement in The Crucible cannot be overstated: led by a man [Olivier] who went dark to play Othello.”
How far does Dyer think we’ve come since Prescod’s appearance? “We came so distant. Since September 2021, we have staged [shows by] four black directors and screenwriters, three South Asian screenwriters and directors and more to be announced next month. I wish Pearl Prescod could have seen the development happening now. I didn’t think I would see this in my own life.”
Many younger black practitioners he’s talked to feel like they’re first, he says, but it’s essential to remember past groundbreaking figures like Prescod “so we can understand the context of how we work today.” The NT has its own Black Plays Archive initiative, he adds, which aims to incorporate forgotten black British texts into the canon. “We are doing readings on these pieces to find out if we can put them on stage and turn them into classics.”
Anya Edmond-Pettitt, coordinator of the IRR’s Black History Collection, says Prescod arrived in Britain at midlife with a sophisticated understanding of empire and with no sense of separation between his performance and his political activism, as many in his quite .
Although he migrated at the same time as the Windrush generation, Prescod’s story differs from the prevailing narrative, which could be one of the reasons for its oblivion, Edmond-Pettitt thinks. “It is not to say that [the Windrush] narrative is not true or important, but it is not the only story. There were people who came from the Caribbean who didn’t become bus drivers, hospital porters and nurses. There is an odd blind spot in that this is the only story we have of colonial migration to this Caribbean country.”
Prescod was part of a group that included actors and singers Cy Grant and Edric Connor, and Pearl Connor, who created the first theatrical and literary agency for people of color. Colin Prescod calls the pamphlet about his life an “archival provocation” which points to the fact that there are countless life stories that must be formally archived. “Many other names are worthy of being remembered, such as [the folk singer] Nadia Cattouse, [the actor] Earl Cameron and Errol John, who won the Observer Award for best new playwright in 1957 and played Othello in the Old Vic. But who talks about him?”
He is, he adds, curious about how the latest NT production will present the figure of Tituba: “They can and should do interesting and different things with this character in 2022 than they would have done in 1965.”