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Born on a slave ship, vaulted into history

Annenberg Center presents Paterson Joseph’s Sancho: An Act of Remembrance’

In
3 minute read
Paterson Joseph revives an important and forgotten subject of British history. (Photo by Robert Day.)
Paterson Joseph revives an important and forgotten subject of British history. (Photo by Robert Day.)

British actor Paterson Joseph is a familiar face to television viewers for his roles in The Leftovers, The Hollow Crown, Babylon, and NBC’s current time-travel series, Timeless. He does a different sort of time traveling in his one-man show Sancho: An Act of Remembrance, which visited the Annenberg Center’s Harold Prince Theater for three performances.

Joseph’s 75-minute script takes us back to 1729. Many people today think free blacks didn’t live in England until the mid-1800s, he informs us, but that’s not so. The proof is Thomas Gainsborough’s 1768 oil portrait of Charles “Sancho” Ignatius, displayed on Michael Vale’s simple set of Oriental rugs and packing crates.

Sancho is a standard one-person biographical play (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It’s enlivened by Joseph’s extemporaneous introductory comments about his search to dramatize and play black historical figures. “I wanted to be in a costume drama,” he explains, but wasn’t cast because he was told that there were no black men of note in British history. Then he found Sancho.

A dramatic life

Joseph’s subject was born on a slave ship in 1729 and soon orphaned. From 1731 to 1749, he lived with three sisters in Greenwich, England, as their plaything. He earned the nickname “Sancho” for portraying Don Quixote’s manservant. Fearing he had “grown too old for the petting,” he assumed he would be sold back into slavery.

Encouraged to educate himself by the Duke of Montagu, he finally left the sisters to become a butler. He married, fathered seven children, and earned respect in high society for his refinement, composing, and writing. Most of the play’s incidental music is Sancho’s.

He also joined England’s ongoing debate about slavery. His correspondence with novelist Laurence Sterne (Tristam Shandy) became an important part of 18th-century abolitionist literature.

Thomas Gainsborough's 1768 portrait of "Sancho" Ignatius. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)
Thomas Gainsborough's 1768 portrait of "Sancho" Ignatius. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)

Sancho opened a greengrocer shop in London and became England’s first person of African origin to vote, at a time when men could only vote if they owned property. Joseph rightly makes the voting, despite opposition from a surly crowd, his play’s climax. “I’m simply a man,” he declares. “But without my papers and without my vote, I’m nothing but a slave.” Sancho died in 1780, the first black person to be given an obituary in the British press.

An outspoken rebel

Joseph’s energetic portrayal, as directed by Simon Godwin, rejects the comforts Sancho enjoyed as a darling of high society. “I do battle with those who think blacks are either foolish or mulish,” he proclaims. His Sancho has a playful sense of humor, pulling a woman from the audience to dance with him onstage and throwing his hat like a Frisbee into the seats.

Sancho was said to have a speech impediment. Joseph gives him a slight lisp — which only adds to the character’s wit — without going so far as to make him difficult to understand.

I’ve been a Paterson Joseph fan for years, since seeing his inspiring 2004 documentary My Shakespeare, in which he directs Romeo and Juliet with a cast of 20 multiethnic non-actors from an impoverished London neighborhood. Joseph was rumored to be a contender to replace David Tennant as the Doctor in the BBC series Doctor Who, but apparently, the world isn’t ready for a black Doctor; two more white actors (Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi) followed, and the new Doctor is a white woman (Jodie Whittaker). Baby steps.

What shines forth in Sancho: An Act of Remembrance is not just a fascinating, often overlooked historical character, but Paterson Joseph’s commitment to reveal and celebrate the forgotten Brits of African descent.

What, When, Where

Sancho: An Act of Remembrance. By Paterson Joseph, Simon Godwin directed. Pemberley Productions and the Oxford Playhouse. April 13-14, 2018, at the Annenberg Center's Harold Prince Theater, 3680 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 898-3900 or annenbergcenter.org.

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