British actor Paterson Joseph was so intrigued by his research into the under-documented history of black people in 18th-century England – and specifically the life of the writer and composer Charles Ignatius Sancho, the first black man to vote in that country – that he wrote a play about him. Sancho: An Act of Remembrance, conceived and performed by Joseph, is at BAM for just a few days, through December 20.
Joseph’s true goal, beyond casting himself in the role, was casting a little light on the history of free blacks in the West. In this he succeeds winningly, bringing a kind of humble audacity to role of Sancho while keeping the tone buoyant, never didactic. It’s a lovingly and masterfully crafted performance. Staged by Joseph and co-director Simon Godwin, it’s acted with subtlety and confident strength and given further dimension by period costumes, an intriguing little wooden set by Michael Vale, and a few selections from Sancho’s music arranged by Ben Park.
Born on a slave ship in 1729, Sancho was never a slave. He went into service in England, where he had the good fortune to impress the Duke and Duchess of Montagu with his intellect and ambition. Educating himself in their household and later serving as a valet, he married and had a batch of children.
Receiving an annuity upon the Duchess’s death in 1751, he went into business as an independent grocer and became a property owner, and thus an eligible voter, setting the stage for his historic vote in the parliamentary election of 1780, shortly before his death. (As an audience member pointed out during a post-performance Q&A, the evocation of a milieu in which only male property-owners could vote resonates with the persistent moves in the U.S. to spread disenfranchisement among poor and minority citizens.)
Joseph admits that his frustration at the lack of costume-drama roles for black men was another incentive for creating the play – although he certainly got to wear a costume, of a different sort, in the extraordinarily fine all-black-cast RSC Julius Caesar, which alit at BAM in 2013. (The excellence of that production is what drew me to his Sancho.)
Another inspiration for Joseph was the famous Thomas Gainsborough portrait of Ignatius Sancho, remarkable for its subject’s pose and expression as well as for the mere existence of a painting by the country’s greatest portraitist of an English gentleman of African descent.
Naturally, only so much detail can go into a solo play of just an hour and a quarter. The captivating quality of the performance and the inherently interesting story made me want more of it – more story. Sancho: An Act of Remembrance is less a deep portrait than a tantalizing glimpse of the life and times of its subject. But it’s a fascinating glimpse, artfully dramatized and performed with equal parts skill and heart, no less for American than for English audiences. Tickets and information are at the BAM website.