Dec. 17 last week, Paterson Joseph took the stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The theatre was packed. The actor (although playing himself, in lines well-rehearsed) introduced us to a man most people have never heard of: Charles Ignatius Sancho. Sancho is a funny, likable man. Well-educated, he fancies himself an actor, although he blames his lack of success on his lisp…among other things. Sancho’s Achilles heal is his appetite. Sancho died December 12, 1780. Today, we get a glimpse of him through the writing of Paterson Joseph, who has conceived of, written, and stars in the one-man historical play, Sancho: An Act of Remembrance.
I admit that calling it a historical play is a tad lazy. Yes, it is a period piece–and the whole reason Joseph came to write it was because he isn’t usually looked at for period roles even though all his actorly training is in period dramas–but the purpose of the play isn’t just to let you know the facts of the first black Briton to cast a vote. It is a universal tale that speaks to what’s going on in many parts of the world and stars a universal character whose fate is held together by luck, despite his faults. Sancho doesn’t have to be the first black Briton to vote. He could be anyone struggling to overcome the caste system, anyone swimming upstream against the waters of prejudices, and anyone who is shockingly different than public assumption (whether it be because of race, gender, class, etc.). Following the show, BAM invited members of the audience to the microphone to talk about elements of the story that they saw in their own lives, and there was no shortage to the connections people saw, whether it was from British ex-pats or from Americans who see many of the same struggles in people in the modern U.S. as in Sancho in 1700s England. This is all to say that before Joseph educated us on the history of Black England, he made his version of Charles Ignatius Sancho a real person.
Aside from being beautifully written, Sancho is beautifully directed. Only a minimal set and a couple costumes are needed because between a multitude of props, lighting cues, sound effects, and our imaginations, we are transported to a slave ship where Sancho was born, the park where he met his wife, his first real job as a butler, and the home he grew up in with three wyrd sisters. (Yes, there are many Shakespeare references in this play, partly because an educated man in eighteenth century Britain would rely on it and also probably because Joseph is a seasoned Shakespearean thespian.)
Also transporting is Joseph’s acting. Comparing his Sancho character to the Paterson Joseph who introduced the play, you see a big difference, and he doesn’t rely heavily on the lisp or leg injury to hide himself. With ease, he slips into all the characters in the play, hilariously acting out the three spinsters who raised Sancho, the Irishman who wrote him a letter, his Jamaican wife, and more. At one point, Joseph is portraying Sancho, who is (in story-telling mode) portraying a child version of himself, who is portraying Panza (Don Quixote’s sidekick), but you never get lost in the layers. Better still, Part II takes place twelve years after Part I, and Joseph transforms Sancho into an older man without the aid of makeup or any other artificial tool. The sound of his voice, the words he chooses, and the new-found melancholy hiding beneath his witticisms age Sancho into the man he was just six months before his death.
Following the performance, Joseph invited Gretchen Gerzina, author of Black England, on stage to talk about how she came to write her book, which was a key inspiration for Joseph to write this play. She had been merely attending the play, not expecting to give a speech, but she eloquently explained how she used the book to fight against the assumption that there were no black people in England in the eighteenth century. Her radio documentary will be on BBC Radio sometime soon.
Sancho is performed in England and America, and even sometimes to very young audiences. Joseph did mention that there was a video recording of the show earlier in the day, so hopefully the play will be made available for all non-theatre-goers before too long. However, if you do have the opportunity to see it live, please do. Sancho is a rare instance where theatre does everything that theatre is meant to do.