SANCHO – An Act of Remembrance
The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 23rd September, 2015
In this one-man show, writer, actor and co-director Paterson Joseph takes a step to redressing the balance: so much of our history omits or overlooks black people. We get an annual nod in the form of Black History Month but, Joseph says, it should just be History. He is keen to disabuse any notion that there were no black people in Britain prior to the 1940s and asks to consider a black Roman, of African origin, stationed at Hadrian’s Wall. He reads us a complaint of Elizabeth I, saying there were too many of ‘those people’ in her beloved England…
Joseph bounds on and addresses us directly, as a heightened version of himself, witty, charming, working the crowd, and easing us into the dramatization. He becomes Charles Ignatius Sancho, a remarkable figure in many respects, but also a unifying figure as he goes through many of the troubles that ordinary (white) folk may encounter. Joseph’s Sancho is an erudite, lisping figure, self-assured and no less charming than the actor portraying him. We first meet him as he sits for Thomas Gainsborough – the resulting portrait was a catalyst for much of tonight’s material. Sancho narrates and re-enacts key events in his life, from his mother’s death in giving birth to him, his father’s subsequent suicide, and his arrival in London at the age of three to act as a servant (read: pet) for three spinsters. A Duke takes him under his wing, educating the boy behind the spinsters’ backs, and the young Sancho (so named because of his portrayal of Don Quixote’s manservant in some am-dram for the spinsters’ amusement) becomes an actor, poet, and what-have-you. He opens a grocery shop and becomes well-known for writing letters to newspapers. He experiences love and loss, as we all do. Eventually, he becomes the first black man to vote – the play ends at this moment of personal and social triumph.
Often informative but never didactic, the play is highly amusing and performed with élan. Joseph’s skills as a storyteller and performer bring both him and Sancho to our hearts. You can’t help liking him/them immensely. There are cheeky asides to individuals in the audiences, a girl is importuned to join him on stage for a courtly dance – it’s all entertaining, to be sure, but it also brings the material directly to us. This is the story of someone in our past, not just someone we might glimpse at in Black History Month.
Michael Vale’s set of wooden planks evokes both the stage of Sancho’s dramatic endeavours but also the hold of the slave ship. Linda Haysman costumes Joseph in the outfit Sancho sports in the Gainsborough portrait, and he uses his neck stock and other pieces to present other characters in the story. Ben Park’s music and sound design enhances the action, while evoking the 18th century. Lighting changes by Lucrecia Briceno indicate changes in location and, subtly, mood.
Co-directed by Simon Godwin and Joseph himself, Sancho – an Act of Remembrance is an engaging, humorous and sometimes poignant piece. Charles Ignatius Sancho is both a remarkable figure and an ordinary man – a point that is just as important as his place in British history.