He was born on a slave ship in 1729. After his mother died and his father committed suicide to avoid living as a slave, Charles “Sancho” Ignatius found his home in England. Though never a slave, he was outspoken against slavery and eventually became known as “the extraordinary Negro.” British actor Paterson Joseph, of HBO’s “The Leftovers” and the films Æon Flux and The Beach, has been celebrating the life of Sancho – the first Black person to have voted in Britain – since 2010 when Sancho: An Act of Remembrance was first performed at Oxford Playhouse.
Now the one-man show is making its New York premiere Dec. 16-20, at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The North American debut began in October at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The tour will culminate at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in February as part of the Shakespeare 400 Chicago, a yearlong international arts festival commemorating the 400 years since his death in 1616.
Joseph – whose credits abound with Royal Shakespeare Company (Julius Caesar, Othello, Henry IV, Hamlet, King Lear) and National Theatre in London (Royal Hunt for the Sun, The Emperor Jones) – “inhabits the curious, daringly determined life” of a composer, social satirist, poet, playwright and general man of refinement. Sancho, a distinguished man of letters who wrote two plays, would quote Shakespeare more than any other author. Among Sancho’s friends were Shakespeare actor and theatre owner David Garrick. Sancho himself became a grocery owner and property owner.
Written and performed by Joseph, the show is billed as an opportunity to cast new light on the often misunderstood narratives of the African-British experience. According to UK’s The Public Reviews, “Joseph is a superb storyteller… he brings Sancho to life in a revealing, poignant and funny show.”
Joseph’s experience involves working-class parents who emigrated to England from the Caribbean’s St. Lucia. He trained at Studio ’68 of Theatre Arts in London before attending the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. In an interview, Joseph recalled being asked what he would like his legacy to entail. His answer was to inform Black youth about Black Britain before 1948 so they “would know something of what came before.” When Joseph came across the Thomas Gainsborough painting of Sancho in the book “Black England” by Gretchen Gerzina, he had found his calling. Joseph, 51, now is the same age as when Sancho died. Sancho was 39 when Gainsborough created his portrait – a sitting of about 100 minutes. In just under that time, Joseph re-creates a picture of noteworthy history.
In his author’s note, he writes:
“Charles Ignatius is quite simply a perfect example, and by no means the only one in British history, of the strange, sometimes uncomfortable relationship that the UK has always had with its colonies and colonial peoples. On the one hand exploitation was rife and unbridled, and on the other, the natural and common humanity of the British would not allow them to fully embrace the horrors of the American model of slavery, at least on British soil. And so Sancho’s life was filled with the joy and pain of being at once free and simultaneously caged within his race and place in eighteenth-century society.”
Performances will be at the BAM Fisher Theatre, 321 Ashland Place, in Brooklyn. Click HERE to purchase tickets. Get updates on the show’s Facebook page.
Newsnight on BBC talks about the impact of British theatre, including a brief interview with Joseph and excerpts from Sancho.