I challenge anyone not to fall for the chameleon-like charms of Paterson Joseph, who wastes no time explaining to the audience that he wrote Sancho: An Act of Remembrance as there were no parts available in costume dramas for young black actors. What better reason could there be to conceive a one-man show? A waistcoat-clad romp designated to shatter the myth that there was no black presence in Britain in the eighteenth century. “But don’t worry,” he reassures, laughing along with us, “it won’t be too overly political,” setting the tone for the evening – gently cajoling but never apportioning blame.
The play opens with a spotlight on Joseph mirroring a portrait of Charles Ignatius Sancho painted by Gainsborough. Striking a pose in profile, the actor comically embodies his eighteenth-century subject simply by pulling his black socks up in readiness for the portraitist with all the pomp and circumstance he can muster. Joseph pouts, pumps out his chest and morphs into Sancho, tracking his growth from wide-eyed innocent youth to cane wielding, gout-ridden eighteenth-century gent with a penchant for the pudding, “ambrosia” and the arts.
Stripping off and layering on clothing to mark character change, each phase of Sancho’s history and the eighteenth-century world he inhabits comes to life through richly invested gestural language and accents, backed by few props and Michael Vale’s simple set of wooden boxes.
While the tragic history of African slavery and brutal treatment of a black population within British society is at the heart of the play, Joseph keeps the mood light. Sounds from Ben Park waft out, from chamber music to street noise to birdsong. They are the soundtrack to an array of larger-than-life characters, both male and female.
There’s Sancho’s Irish friend, the author Lawrence Stern (who wrote Tristram Shandy), and Sancho’s comical wife, who espouses homespun truths in a singsong Caribbean lilt. Joseph showing off an impressive vocal range for a lone performer. He also impersonates Sancho’s lisp, historically noted, to indicate when he speaks as himself (the actor) and when he speaks as Sancho.
Joseph digs up historical information about Sancho, weaving it into the dialogue, so it’s hard to tell where fact merges with fiction. We know that he was an accomplished man of the arts, a poet, essayist, actor and composer. He became the first black actor to perform as Othello, he was an eighteenth-century symbol of humanity for the abolition movement, and most importantly, as we learn at the end of the play, he was documented as the first black man to vote in a British election. “He was black, smart, humorous; he appealed to those who knew that Africans were not merely the “beasts of burden” the slave traders portrayed them as,” says Joseph.
The story goes that Sancho was born in 1729 on a slave ship bound from Africa to the West Indies, where his mother died during childbirth and his father killed himself to avoid slavery. The young Sancho was rescued by a nobleman and sent to England as a human pet for three sisters’ cruel amusement. Disapproving of the boy’s quest to read, the sisters turf him out, when he is scooped up in Blackheath by the Montague family, who encourage Sancho in education, employing him as butler until some years later, when as an older man riddled with gout, Sancho faces dismissal and opens a grocery store in Westminster.
What makes Sancho – An Act of Remembrance so resonant is the contradictory nature of Joseph’s flamboyant caricatures. On the one hand, his performance is airy and playful, befriending the audience, inviting on-stage participation, creating a safe space. On the other, there is the knowledge that what lies beneath the sleek veneer of comedy is a character who has experienced the full horror of slavery first-hand, and has, against the odds, fought to be acknowledged for his own merit.
Such contradiction converts a series of episodic playful moments rich in storytelling into deeply meaningful theatre with a powerful message. “Sancho’s life was filled with the joy and pain of being at once free and simultaneously caged within the race and place in eighteenth-century society,” says Joseph. Depressingly, such truisms continue to be relevant in contemporary Britain almost 300 years on.
Sancho – An Act of Remembrance is at Wilton’s Music Hall until June 17th. For more details, click here.