Paterson Joseph – image by Robert Day
Sancho: An Act of Remembrance by Paterson Joseph, Wilton’s Music Hall, London
Paterson Joseph’s play, performed by himself, is an account of the remarkable life of Charles Ignatius Sancho, butler to the Duke and Duchess of Montagu and the first black Briton known to have voted. Joseph, an actor with a fine stage CV, engages with the audience from the start as himself, author, performer, and black Briton. He explains that although his white contemporaries moved quickly into costume drama, he was never offered those parts. So he wrote one for himself, based on his discovery that the Britain of the past, where black faces are rarely shown, was in fact much blacker than he had ever realised.
A portrait of Sancho painted in 1768 by Thomas Gainsborough sits on stage throughout, a constant reminder of the social status he achieved. Joseph tells the extraordinary story of his life, from his birth on a slave ship to a mother who died in childbirth, and the suicide of his father, to his escape from the three sisters who denied him education and chance rescue by the Duke of Montagu. His adventures are fascinating, partly because they show how a black man could become respected and play a part in 18th century high society. Joseph is also careful to show how fortunate and exceptional his success was, compared to the fate of most black people carried away by the slave trade. When Sancho comes to vote – in public, pre-secret ballots – he is forced to prove he is entitled to be there. The acceptance he has enjoyed melts away when he stops acting the compliant servant and demands the same rights as his fellows.
Joseph has chosen a powerful and illuminating theme for his play, and the audience loved his performance. Sancho was an actor for a short spell, which gives Joseph full license to portray him as a flamboyant and self-dramatising character, and an entertaining guide to black experience. However, while there is plenty of scope for playing to the audience, there is less direct engagement with the political themes than might be expected. In fact, at the start Joseph assures us that this is not a political play. When, in select moments, Joseph drops the charm, he achieves a different level of impact. His personal experiences, glimpsed at the start, are intriguing and a modern counterpoint to Sancho’s story, but we hear little about them. At the end of the play he removes the mask, telling us as both himself and as Sancho that he cannot do this anymore, that he has to stop pretending. This is a moment of real power and, while Sancho is an engaging evening, it would benefit from more of them.