‘We were always in awe of her’: actors celebrate the life and legacy of Mona Hammond

David Harewood, Sharon D Clarke and Josette Bushell-Mingo pay tribute to the pioneering star who has died aged 91

David Harewood: ‘Her wisdom was a welcome balm’

It is often said that those of us who succeed do so because we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. But what is not so often said is that many of those pioneers were giants. Mona Hammond was such a giant. I’ve lost count of the amount of times this diminutive powerhouse played my mother. Each time we came together was a joy, her sense of humour often surprising me and her wisdom a welcome balm. Always so encouraging, she seemed genuinely delighted to have me around. Mona had a calming presence and the sweetest voice you could imagine, one that carried with it a fierceness that could turn any minute from joy to reprimand while making me laugh – a rare quality that she alone possessed.

Mona graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1964, the year before I was born. I cannot imagine the hurdles she must have faced. Perhaps her experiences helped her to see the importance of creating a space where black excellence had a place to come together, to tell its stories and give those on the margins a voice, so along with her lifelong friend Yvonne Brewster she was one of the founding members of Talawa, the company that gave me my first professional job, and that supports and encourages today’s generation of black artists to strut their stuff on the stage.

Indeed, it’s almost as if she were all our mothers and we all her children, standing on her shoulders, winning awards and being invited into spaces that she could have only imagined when she began her journey. So let us pay tribute to a giant, one who encouraged and guided a whole generation to reach the heights we find ourselves at today. Were it not for her courage and strength many of us may not have made it up to this lofty perch. So we salute you Mona and bid you a very, very fond farewell.

Mona Hammond and Jason Rose in O Babylon! The Musical at Riverside Studios, London, directed by Yvonne Brewster, in 1988.
Mona Hammond and Jason Rose in O Babylon! The Musical at Riverside Studios, London, directed by Yvonne Brewster, in 1988. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Sharon D Clarke: ‘She could ground you with her stillness, then unleash a hurricane’

In January 1988, I was so excited to go into rehearsals for Talawa’s production of Derek Walcott’s O Babylon! The Musical at Riverside Studios, London, with Mona Hammond – an actress who I greatly admired, having seen her in The Black Jacobins, Blood Wedding and Playboy of the West Indies.

She was always generous with her time and her wisdom. To be in a room with her, witnessing her craft every day, was a masterclass and pure joy. She had a gentleness that also said don’t mess with me. On stage she could ground you with her stillness, then unleash a hurricane with her ferocity.

I loved seeing my mum and Miss Mona chatting away after various shows.

The last time I saw Miss Mona was on a bus. We were both making our way to the tube – she from visiting friends, me going to see friends. We ended up getting tea and cake at a local cafe and chatted a couple of hours away.

She trailblazed the way for a generation of black actors, not only with her canon of work but also the way she carried herself in life. She led by example, she championed us. We stand tall, proud and flourish on her queenly shoulders. And this descendant of Jamaican parents is proud that we come from the same parish of Clarendon.

Mona Hammond in 2010.
A constant inspiration … Mona Hammond in 2010. Photograph: Wenn Rights/Alamy

Josette Bushell-Mingo: ‘Funny, smart and alive in the language’

It was a great sadness when I learned of Mona’s passing. She leaves behind an extraordinary legacy – as a great actor and as an impacter of excellence upon the Black and global majority community. As a role model, she consistently set standards and demands for all of us to be our best.

I had the privilege of working with her at Birmingham Rep. She was the Nurse to my Juliet opposite Damien Lewis as Romeo. As an actor she was funny, smart, and alive in the language. As a part of the ensemble, we were always in awe of her.

Mona is one of the reasons I am here. She proved beyond a doubt the excellence of the actress and, with dedication, transformed the industry with more than 50 years of work, covering TV, theatre, film and so much more. Her impact was felt even more as a constant inspiration for us all.

My thoughts are with Mona’s family and friends who looked out for her in these past few years; we kept in constant touch about her welfare, especially in the final days and hours. Through this, we found comfort in our shared memories of Mona. Things will never quite be the same, but our job is to continue her legacy with courage, fearlessness and joy.

She was underappreciated in her time but will not be forgotten.

The GuardianTramp

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