Geraldine Connor (1952-2011) was a theatre director, educationalist, and inspiration to many.
Geraldine was born in London on 22nd March 1952. Her parents, Edric and Pearl Connor, were important cultural figures both in Trinidad and in London: Edric as an actor, writer and collector of Caribbean folk songs; Pearl as the first theatrical agent to represent black and other ethnic minority actors, writers and film-makers in Britain. Geraldine spent her early childhood in Trinidad and Tobago with her grandparents and an extended family that included Beryl McBurnie of the Little Carib Theatre, an early artistic inspiration. Later she trained at the Royal College of Music in London, obtained a Diploma in Education in Trinidad, and was awarded a Master of Music degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London before completing her doctoral research at the University of Leeds in 2006 with a thesis entitled: !Halleluliah! Excursions into a third space – Carnival Messiah as an instrument of post-colonial liberation.
She worked widely as a teacher, both in Trinidad and Tobago and in the UK, and was Senior Lecturer in Popular Music Studies at Bretton Hall, where Carnival Messiah was born. She was tutor and education supervisor at the Brent Black Music Cooperative in London and became, to use her own words, “a player, teacher, arranger, adjudicator and observer within the steelband movement of both Trinidad & Tobago and Britain”. She was one of the first female arrangers to compete in the Panorama competition in Trinidad, arranged for Ebony Steel Orchestra and worked with Arthur France and Dudley Nesbitt in Leeds to establish the New World Steel Orchestra in Leeds. In 2005, she accepted an award from the British Association of Steel Bands in recognition of the Connor family’s contribution to the promotion of steel-band music, Caribbean art, culture and heritage throughout the UK. Her last publication, Pan, the Steelband Movement in Britain, was launched with New World in March 2011.
Over three decades, Geraldine created or directed a truly mind-boggling number of theatrical and musical productions. Many were produced at or in collaboration with the West Yorkshire Playhouse, including All God’s Children Got Wings by Eugene O’Neil (1993), Blues in the Night (2002 & 2003) and Yaa Asantewaa – African Warrior Queen (2002).
The West Yorkshire Playhouse is also where Carnival Messiah was premiered, her best-known work, what she herself called “the pinnacle of my creative and artistic career”. A radical reinvention of Handel’s Messiah, performed Caribbean Carnival style, she describes the production like this:
A spectacular musical showcase, featuring a multi-ethnic multitude of singers, musicians, masqueraders, dancers and actors … The excitement, music and colour of Carnival blended with Handel’s most inspiring and exhilarating melodies … Gospel, oratorio, soca, bhangra, jazz, reggae, hip hop and ritual theatre combine with towering, glittering carnival costumes and dancing mobiles … Caribbean rhythms and European classics mix with Yoruba ritual, Commedia dell’arte, Islamic and Hindu cultural references, Pantomime, Masquerade, Street theatre and the liturgy of Christianity…
Following its first incarnation as a student production at Wakefield Theatre Royal in 1994, Carnival Messiah empowered a whole generation of performers and entertained thousands of audience members. There have been professional productions in Leeds 1999 and 2002, in Trinidad in 2003 and 2004, and in a huge marquee in the grounds of Harewood House in 2007. No-one involved in the production, on stage, back stage or in the audience, experienced professional performer or member of the community chorus, will ever forget the experience.
In 2009, she was presented with Trinidad and Tobago’s second highest national honour, the Chaconia medal (gold).
Geraldine died on 21st October 2011, aged 59.