There are elements in the narrative of Sancho: An Act of Remembrance that continues to have relevance today. Charles Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780), played by Paterson Joseph, lived in a very different era, but then, as now, black people were portrayed in a certain way. I am reminded of a group of black American friends on a YouTube video last year. They were looking at a movie poster put up on a billboard in their local community. Seeing that the actors on the poster were black, they began to laugh, observing that it remains a relative rarity to see ‘POCs’ (persons of colour) on such posters. “This is what it must feel like for white people when they see film stars blown up to this size. If I saw people like me more often like this, I would love my country too,” one of them wryly observed.
There were, as this production points out, people who treated Sancho with suspicion because of his skin colour. In those days, there were three criteria that made some eligible to vote in those days. One had to be a male, over the age of 21, and a landowner of property over a certain threshold. Quite how Sancho got there, as far as his life story as presented in this play is concerned, would be giving too much away (although I take the point that Sancho has a Wikipedia page as well as an entry on the ‘100 Great Black Britons’ website).
But after he had established these credentials and was known in Westminster and the surrounding area, election officials still insisted on following the letter of the law and not allowing him to cast his vote until he had proved his eligibility to vote in the 1780 parliamentary election, having already done so in a previous election, in 1774. Even today, there’s a ‘poll card’ for elections, but authorities cannot stop someone from voting if they don’t actually bring it to the polling station.
It is, as I have pointed out before and will no doubt find myself saying so again in the future, no bad thing to leave the audience wanting more. But this show, which runs without an interval, ends so abruptly with him finally being allowed to vote. We are told he voted for Charles James Fox (1749-1806), an anti-abolitionist Whig, and that’s it. Fox won, but the play doesn’t even tell us that, and there is nothing said about his passing and the rather notable (to me, anyway) detail that he was the first person of African descent known to have an obituary in the British press. Then again, the audience is told in the prologue that this was primarily an opportunity for Paterson Joseph to bag the leading role in a period drama. (And, as Barry ‘Dame Edna’ Humphries once pointed out, the wonderful thing about a solo performance is that if you win an award for it, there is nobody else to thank.)
At least Joseph has oodles of charisma and charm. The rapport with the audience is nothing sort of case study excellence. However, the production overall relies more on description than dramatization, though some good use is made of a relatively sparse number of props. It isn’t all political – this is, partly, drama about drama, and David Garrick (1717-1779) is repeatedly name-dropped.
The fourth wall wasn’t breached, because the fourth wall was taken down as Joseph began his introduction and never properly put back up again, allowing Joseph to slip in and out of character. Wryly observing that the audience audibly responded to his enthusiastic greeting, this was a performer that had quite literally most of the crowd at ‘hello’. A well-researched and intriguing production.
The London premiere of Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance, acclaimed actor Paterson Joseph’s new one-man play telling the extraordinary unknown story of Charles Ignatius Sancho, English gentleman, socialite, composer, writer, abolitionist and first Afro-Briton to vote in Britain.
Sancho was conceived, written and stars Paterson Joseph (NT’s Emperor Jones, RSC’s Julius Caesar, Peep Show and Green Wing) after spending years wanting to appear in a period drama but finding limited roles for black actors. This revealing and funny one-man show casts a light on the widely unknown and often-misunderstood narratives of the African-Britain experience and tells the remarkable unknown story of Sancho.
Sancho: An Act of Remembrance
Dates: 4th – 16th June
Wilton’s Music Hall