Re-animating a Unique British-African Life

If you look up the name “Charles ‘Sancho’ Ignatius,” you can find him listed as “writer, composer,” known for his “influence over abolitionists, his published correspondence” and being, under the heading of ethnicity, a “black Briton.”

If you look up Paterson Joseph, he is listed as being born in London and being an actor from 1998 until now.

For two nights at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 23 and 24, the two men, Ignatius Sancho,  actor, essayist, writer, composer, grocer, a black Briton born as a slave, friend to David Garrick and Laurence Sterne, and the first black man ever to vote in England, and Paterson Joseph, an actor, writer, sometime cook, at home in roles created by Shakespeare as well as in the HBO Series “The Leftover,” also a self-described black Briton, converge, become one, when Joseph brings his play, “Sancho: An Act of Remembrance” to the stage, as both actor and star. And therein lies a tale.

Joseph—who has led an actor’s life since 1988 with much acclaim and success on the stage — including the Royal Shakespeare Company in films (“The Beach” with Leonardo DiCaprio) and television (in the cultish “Doctor Who” series and in “The Leftovers”) — did not discover Sancho online. He read a book, and he saw a painting.

The painting is famous, being the work of William Gainsborough, probably the greatest British painter and portraitist of the18th century.  The painting was made at a time when Sancho had already achieved some standing and some apparent means. He looks a bit questioning, but comfortable in his skin and clothes, which are those of a gentleman of the time.

But it was the  book called “Black Britain” (which included the portrait) by historian Gretchen Gerzina, which affected Joseph’s feelings and thinking dramatically when he discovered it in 2008.  “Truth be told, I hadn’t known anything about Sancho at the time,” he said during a phone interview. “I think there are a lot of people—myself included—who probably there hadn’t been a major presence of black English people until the arrival of a large group of immigrants from Jamaica. I mean we all knew about the slave trade  and the islands and all of that, but here was this full-bodied man, who had risen up from service, learned to read, raised a large family, became interested in the theater,  rose in society and became a highly vocal and literate advocate for banning the slave trade.”

“He was the first black man to cast a vote,” he added.

The voice on the phone is affable, free-wheeling, easy with humor and sports a decided English accent.  It’s a voice—an actor’s voice, you think—that is spurred by curiosity, in a general way, but also the kind that even as you hear it, you imagine him listening, gathering information.  He  relishes the discovery of Sancho, but wonders that he perhaps should have known about him.  “We actors tend to be a bit self-absorbed,” he said.

“His story—and it’s a complicated, meaningful, but also very theatrical story—resonated profoundly with me, certainly,” Joseph said. “He is a forefather for all of us, for one thing, and he had a life full of accomplishment.

“Right from the beginning, I’ve been wanting to do something with his life, to do this,” he said. “So here we are, it’s the first time for this in the United States.  I’m not given to be being a writer so much, but this project comes from me and it means an enormous amount to me. Plus, it’s history, and I do love period pieces.”

Joseph’s already led a rich acting life. “One of the things that interested me about him was that he was friends with Garrick,” he said. “Garrick was in his way a revolutionary force in English theater, and in the way Shakespeare was done. The producers and directors of that time tended to rewrite Shakespeare, they would tack on happy endings to the tragedies—imagine an upbeat Hamlet, things like that.”

“Sancho was also a writer,” he said. “He wrote to and for the newspapers on everything, but especially the abolition of slavery. He wrote letters to the English novelist Laurence Sterne (‘Tristram Shandy’) to get him to support and lend his weight for abolition, which he did.” Sancho was on the side of Great Britain during the Revolutionary War.

“I think Sancho is a thick, dramatic story,” Joseph said. “It’s different from the American black historical narratives like ‘Roots’ and ‘Twelve Years a Slave.’ It’s original and rather idiosyncratic.”

Listening  to Joseph, you get the sense that this project is a kind of legacy for himself as well as Sancho.

“Acting has been my life, and it’s been remarkably rewarding in many ways,” Joseph said. “That world, especially in the theater, is always changing for everybody in terms of audiences and in terms of roles and race.  There are always things in the theater and as an actor, that are indelible.  I had the opportunity to perform in ‘Julius Caesar’ as Brutus in South Africa.  That play, by the way, was Nelson Mandela’s favorite Shakespearean play.  And Brutus—perhaps the play should have been called ‘Brutus’—is critical to the play, but he’s complicated. He struggles with the deed and the aftermath constantly. He is not prone to act quickly, somewhat, yes, that’s right, like Hamlet.”

Charles Ignatius Sancho and Paterson Joseph­ seem made for each other.


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