Sancho: An Act of Remembrance
April 28, 2018
The National Black Theater
Endurance and a Little Bit of Luck
The ticket for Sancho: An Act of Remembrance pictures the character, hand upraised, above the phrase: “By fortitude, not fate, go I.”
That neatly nails the saga of Charles Ignatius Sancho, born into poverty on a West Indian slave ship, who rose to become a composer, writer, businessman and possibly the first black man to have voted in England.
The one-man performance was conceived, written and performed by the very engaging British actor, Paterson Joseph, who began by explaining the motivation that led him to create the work. It wasn’t because of politics, although politics, both 18th century and current, permeate every element. Instead, Paterson wanted to appear in a costume drama but casting directors repeatedly put him off, because “there were no free blacks in Britain before the 20th century.”
Not so fast. Intensive research led Joseph to discover Sancho. With the twin benefits of education and his own sharp wits, this man, who could easily have drifted into oblivion, expanded his life. Ultimately, Sancho became a fairly prominent figure with friends in high places including British novelist Lawrence Stern and celebrated actor David Garrick. His portrait was painted by Thomas Gainsborough whose likeness of Sancho occupies a prominent place on Michael Vale’s set.
Entwined in Mr. Joseph’s portrayal of Sancho are themes of prejudice and xenophobia, sentiments that are sadly as true today as they were in the 18th century. If this sounds like a grim theatrical event, be assured that it is not. Sancho’s history is triumphant, and, as presented by Mr. Joseph, entertaining, revealing a man possessed of a sardonic wit, slight lisp and great comic timing. Although the work is episodic rather than sweeping in the sense of most costume drama, it moves along briskly. The ending, when a twist of fate brings Sancho his property possession papers enabling him to vote for Charles Fox, the anti-slavery candidate, is a little forced but aside from this the presentation is sharp, enlivened by Mr. Joseph’s charm and assurance—he even pulls off a short dance with an audience member.
The program was presented by The Classical Theatre of Harlem, Pemberley Productions and National Black Theatre. The Classical Theatre of Harlem (CTH) tells stories through the lens of the African diaspora and honors the cultural legacy of Harlem, the neighborhood in which it was founded. CTH combines original adaptations, music, and dance to present great classics of world literature as well as contemporary works that will stand the test of time while being truly reflective of the diversity of ideas and racial tapestry that is America including works by Chekhov, Euripides and Shakespeare. It also celebrates established 20th-century and emerging playwrights. The organization engages new audiences, provides artistic development of new work, and gives exposure to emerging playwrights with its three free reading series: Future Classics, Playwrights’ Playground, and Revisited Classics