Pearl Prescod’s star soared high in her day. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, she became the first Black actor to play with the National Theatre company, under Laurence Olivier, in London in 1965. She appeared 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?
Partly because her career was cut short by an untimely death – she had a brain haemorrhage at the age of 46, just a year after her breakthrough National Theatre role. But those excavating her forgotten legacy today think there is more to it than that. Coming to Britain in 1954, aged 34, on a music scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, she was part of a larger group of well-educated, highly politicised Caribbean figures who arrived in the postwar era to make similarly impressive strides in culture and in consciousness-raising around race but whose names have since been forgotten.
The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has brought out a pamphlet on Prescod’s life as part of an endeavour to shine a light on the overlooked stories of this generation of Caribbean artists and intellectuals. There is so much to unearth in the case of Prescod’s short but glittering 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 a fully Black cast, who broke from the theatrical expectation of the time to speak in their 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 she marched to the US embassy in a parallel protest to Martin Luther King’s historic 1963 march on Washington. She also featured in the 1964 civil rights stage show made for TV called Freedom Road: Songs of Negro Protest.
Her son, Colin Prescod, was born in Trinidad and lived with his aunts and grandmother until the age of 13 when he joined Pearl in her home in Ladbroke Grove, west London, where she raised him as a single mother. He remembers watching her perform at the Royal Court on his first night in London. He met Olivier, too, when his mother was cast in the role of Tituba – a slave from Barbados accused of witchcraft – in the National’s staging of The Crucible, alongside Frank Finlay, Michael Gambon and Anthony Hopkins. He was a teenager when she got the part and did not appreciate its magnitude, not least because the company had only just come into being a couple of years earlier under Olivier. “I was in sixth form at the time and was backstage in the huge dressing room as Olivier came in. My mother was keen 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 thinking of making a career in acting but that she was trying to encourage him to complete his studies instead. “Laurence Olivier said ‘Pearly’s quite right, you really should finish your studies because an actor’s is a tough life – we’re not always working.’ I had really wanted to go on to the boards but that turned my head. I decided to pay attention to my A-levels and then went on to university.”
Clint Dyer, the current deputy artistic director at the National Theatre, says Prescod’s achievement in The Crucible cannot be overestimated: “We talk about the conscious and unconscious biases within racism today but imagine what she would have received at that time, and in a company led by a man [Olivier] who blacked up to play Othello.”
How far does Dyer think we have come since Prescod’s appearance? “We’ve come so far. Since September 2021 we have staged [shows by] four Black directors and writers, three south Asian writers and directors, and more to be announced next month. I wish Pearl Prescod could have seen the development happening right now. I didn’t think I’d see it in my own lifetime.”
Many younger Black practitioners he has spoken to feel they are the first, he says, but it is essential to remember past, groundbreaking figures such as Prescod “so that we can understand the context of how we work today”. The NT has its own initiative in the Black Plays Archive, he adds, which aims to incorporate otherwise forgotten Black British texts into the canon. “We are doing readings of these plays to find if we can put them on stage and make them into classics.”
Anya Edmond-Pettitt, coordinator of the Black History Collection at the IRR, says Prescod came to Britain in mid-life with a sophisticated understanding of empire, and with no sense of separation between her acting and her political activism, like many in her milieu.
Although she migrated at the same time as the Windrush generation, Prescod’s story differs from that prevailing narrative, which may be one reason why it has been forgotten, thinks Edmond-Pettitt. “It’s not to say that [the Windrush] narrative isn’t true or important but it’s not the only story. There were people who came from the Caribbean who did not become bus drivers, hospital porters and nurses. There’s a strange blindspot in that this is the only story we have of colonial migration to this country from the Caribbean.”
Prescod was part of a group that included the actors and singers Cy Grant and Edric Connor, and Pearl Connor, who created the first theatrical and literary agency for people of colour. Colin Prescod calls the pamphlet on her life an “archival teaser” that points to the fact that there are hosts of life stories that should 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 at the Old Vic. But who talks about him?”
He is, he adds, curious about how the NT’s latest production will present the figure of Tituba: “They can and should do interesting and different things with that character in 2022 than they would have done back in 1965.”