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Paterson Joseph's bio show spotlights a forgotten black pioneer
You've probably never heard of Charles Ignatius Sancho, the first black Briton to vote back in 1774. Playwright/ performer Paterson Joseph, who is also black and British, hadn't either until he discovered Gretchen Gerzina's book Black England. A classically trained actor known for his work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Joseph had long yearned to write a play illuminating the history of blacks in his homeland. He was tired of people -- especially casting agents -- ignorantly claiming that there were no blacks in England before the 20th century.
Reading about Sancho's amazing accomplishments in the face of incredible adversity, Joseph knew he had found a rich subject for dramatization. Born into slavery, Sancho became a composer, actor, writer and grocery store proprietor -- owning that property is what earned him the right to vote. He also had his portrait painted by Thomas Gainsborough, was friendly with Shakespearean actor David Garrick and was admired by abolitionist Charles James Fox. Considering his amazing history, you would think a play celebrating his life would be embraced in Britain. But Joseph's solo show Sancho: An Act of Remembrance has mostly played in the U.S.
"When we started I desperately wanted it to be in London for an extended run first because that was his town, but nobody stepped up," recalls Joseph, who's best recognized stateside for his role as Connor Mason on NBC's Timeless. "So we did it at the Kennedy Center in D.C. in 2015 and I couldn't believe it. I sat looking at the Potomac River and started crying. Sancho wanted to come to America, as you heard him say in the play: 'When this war with America passes we could try our fortunes there.' He never made it. But with the show playing here it felt like he did."
Joseph has been touring Sancho: An Act of Remembrance on and off since then, including a brief stint at BAM that same year. But its current run at the National Black Theatre, coproduced by the Classical Theatre of Harlem, feels particularly urgent because of the upcoming midterm elections, which have the potential to shift the balance of power in our country.
"I did not know how current the issue of voting and voter registration would be," says Joseph. "Now every single night we have a voter registration drive at the show. Sometimes we only sign up one person, but that's one person who didn't vote the last time. I hope people take that away: We must vote."
Ty Jones, the producing artistic director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, felt Sancho: An Act of Remembrance was a perfect fit for the company: a costume drama that champions a little-known black pioneer. "We want to shine a light on these forgotten stories," he says. "I think there's a lot of folks out there saying we're living in unprecedented times, and I just don't agree with that. When I speak to my parents, who grew up African-American in rural Mississippi, this is not unprecedented. We need to be looking at people like Sancho, who lived in far more extreme circumstances, and he persevered. The work black people did in those days, it's more than just paying homage. It's learning. This is how they intentionally fought against their circumstances and how they used comedy and laughs."
For despite its serious themes, Sancho: An Act of Remembrance is quite funny. That's because the title character used his intellect and quick wit to both charm British society and fight systemic bigotry. You can hear that in the script, which draws extensively on Sancho's real-life letters. "Humor is the best way to have an impact on people," Joseph says. "It opens them up and lets them see what is amusing but also what's horrifying and wrong. People come in thinking, this show is about slavery; it's going to be really heavy. But I want people to be entertained and enlightened."
After Joseph wraps up this run, he'll finally bring Sancho home: the show is scheduled to play in London at Wilton's Music Hall in June. But he says it's not the same work he wrote three years ago. "The play has grown in America in a way that it wouldn't have in the U.K. where's there a large amount of apathy about politics -- particular black politics," he says. "Originally, I was trying to root the story in my country where I always felt a stranger. But in America it's become a larger story about the African diaspora and how we have been disenfranchised in the many countries of our births."
Top image: Paterson Joseph in Sancho: An Act of Remembrance. Photos by Robert Day.