Paterson Joseph Brings Charles Ignatius Sancho to Life


This article by Roslyn Sulcas appeared in The New York Times.

He was an actor, a composer, a writer and a grocer. He was painted by Gainsborough and corresponded with the novelist Laurence Sterne. He was Charles Ignatius Sancho — black, born on a slave ship and believed to be, in 1774, the first black Briton to cast a vote.

“Most people have never heard of him,” said the British actor Paterson Joseph, whose solo show, “Sancho: An Act of Remembrance,” opens at BAM Fisher on Wednesday. “But his story is an amazing one. He refused to be trapped by the color of his skin; he had aspirations to art, culture — and little access but forced his way in.”

Mr. Joseph, probably best known in the United States for his role as the cult leader Holy Wayne in HBO’s “The Leftovers,” might have been talking about himself. He is a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company who has performed leading roles at the National Theater, on the West End and in several television series, including “Peep Show.”

But when he told his sister he wanted to go to drama school, he recalled in a telephone interview, she said: “Why bother? You’re only going to be playing servants and slaves.” Not me, he replied.

Mr. Joseph, 51, was born to parents who had emigrated to England from the Caribbean island St. Lucia a few years before he was born. His father was a plasterer, his mother a ward orderly in a hospital, and he grew up in a working-class area in northwest London with four sisters and a brother. (“In a three-bedroom flat above a shop called This and That,” he explained.)

Playing the violent Bill Sikes in a school production of “Oliver Twist” was a turning point. “I wasn’t very good at school,” he said. “Doing that play was the first time I got compliments from people.”

After working briefly as a cook and acting with an amateur group, Mr. Joseph received a grant to study drama, eventually attending the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Bearing his sister’s words in mind, he decided, he said, “to become as classical an actor as possible.”

After leaving the London Academy, he found steady employment, performing with Cheek by Jowl and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and starring in productions of “The Royal Hunt of the Sun” and “The Emperor Jones.” He was working on the 2000 film “The Beach” when one of his co-stars, the actress Tilda Swinton, asked him what he would like to leave as a legacy.

“I heard myself saying, ‘I’d like to write about black Britain before 1948, so that black kids would know something of what came before,’ ” he recounted, explaining that most Britons presumed that black immigration began at that time, with the well-known arrival of 492 passengers on a ship from Montego Bay in Jamaica.

He also had a less elevated goal in mind. “You know what actors are like,” he said dryly. “I just wanted to do a costume drama.”

In 2003, Mr. Joseph came across Gretchen Gerzina’s book “Black England” and found a reproduction of the Gainsborough painting of Sancho, elegantly attired in wig and brocaded waistcoat and clearly of significant social standing. “I looked at it and thought, ‘It can’t be true,’ ” Mr. Joseph said.

He learned more: that Sancho was born in 1729 on a slave ship in the mid-Atlantic; ended up living in Greenwich, close to London, placed with three unmarried sisters; and taught himself to read and write. He began to work as a butler for the Duke of Montagu and wrote poetry and plays, composed music and became a part of London literary circles, corresponding with Samuel Johnson among others. In later years, he opened a grocer’s shop; as a property owner, he became eligible to vote.

Like the American actor Ira Aldridge, who 40 years after Sancho’s death achieved mainstream success on the London stage, Sancho seems to have moved with assurance within a largely white society.

“What I found interesting was that it wasn’t a ‘12 Years a Slave’ story at all,” Mr. Joseph said. “He says what he thinks about slavery, but it’s not his only campaign issue. He was part of society, felt he was an Englishman; he was black, clever, funny, an entertainer. He used language, wit, as a weapon against the frustration that comes sometimes with the color of your skin. Like me, I suppose.”

Mr. Joseph at first tried to find a writer but unsatisfied with the outcome “sort of channeled Sancho to get his voice and manner,” then honed the play (which was first performed in 2010 at the Oxford Playhouse) with the director Simon Godwin.

Joseph V. Melillo, the executive producer of the Brooklyn Academy, said that he had not seen “Sancho” when he agreed to program the piece. That was after meeting Mr. Joseph in 2013, when he played Brutus in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Julius Caesar.”

“You have an extraordinary actor saying: I have a show, the subject is a black British man in white society, and you have an experienced director,” Mr. Melillo said. “I just said: ‘You’re on. You’ve got a New York opening night.’”

Mr. Joseph said he felt it was important for people to be aware of the multiplicity of stories about the black experience.

“The African-American story is the dominant one,” he said, “and it’s a strong one, but as a Briton I have to ask myself, ‘Where is your own?’ And as an actor, I have to say that we need more directors, writers, actors, commissioners, thinking multiculturally. Then the roles for black actors will be there.”

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