photo by Robert Day

The story of Charles Ignatius Sancho is astonishing. Born on a slave ship in the 18th century, he was soon orphaned and somehow found his way to Greenwich, London. In spite of the unimaginable challenges of being black in Georgian Britain, Sancho eventually became a distinguished writer and composer. And, crucially, he cast the first ever Afro-British vote in an election, becoming an important symbol in the movement to abolish slavery.

In Sancho: An Act of Remembrance, a one-man play written and performed by Paterson Joseph, Sancho guides us through these dramatic events in the grand yet intimate Wilton’s Music Hall. With flamboyance and charm personified, he waltzes around the stage recalling witty anecdotes and bizarre moments which have occurred through his life.

Joseph portrays the character as a man who loves to please. We learn that Sancho had always wanted to be an actor but, as he remarks drily, his speech impediment (a slight lisp) excluded him. This is one of many times where he demonstrates an unending resolve in response to discrimination. One night on his way home from a concert with his family, he pointedly remarked they were “not much abused” this time.

The contagious energy of Sancho makes his quieter moments particularly pronounced, such as talking about the death of his parents and the cruelty of his first adopters, three middle-aged women, in Greenwich. They don’t allow him to read, the cruellest punishment for a knowledge-hungry young Sancho – one of them asking “what use can a savage make of books?”.

We first meet Sancho when he’s having his portrait painted by Thomas Gainsborough – the foremost British artist of the age – and follow him into his older years. Later in the play his words are joined by a tinge of bitterness about the freedoms he is denied through his life.

Joseph’s script, which uses many of Sancho’s old letters, is deftly written, and his performance is engaging – including a delicate balance of humour and occasional solemnity.

The nature of a monologue, though, means we do miss the interactions Sancho has with others. A fuller cast might have truly brought out the loneliness which he often felt, and the bizarre situations he found himself in. Meanwhile, at times in the play’s early scenes a few of the lines don’t quite hit the spot.

The play, which began in the Oxford Playhouse before touring America, was conceived by Joseph while researching to find a screenplay. He joked in his short prologue that all he had ever wanted to do was “be in a costume drama” like his white colleagues. You can just imagine how well this would work on TV – it could actually suit it much better than the stage.

Given the recent Windrush scandal, Sancho: An Act of Remembrance disturbingly has even more relevance in modern-day Britain than Joseph might have expected. Two centuries before the HMS Empire Windrush landed from Jamaica, here was a black man struggling to be accepted in British society.

When Sancho first attempted to vote, they denied his democratic right because he’d momentarily lost his papers – as a black man he needed papers to prove his citizenship. The fact that this resonates with our society now, in 2018, is rather appalling.