Sancho: An Act of Remembrance

Note: I saw this play last year during its run at Wilton’s Music Hall, but mislaid my notes shortly afterwards during a catastrophic attempt to Marie Kondo my home. Having rediscovered them, I’m publishing this post because ‘Sancho: An Act of Remembrance’ tells such an important and moving true story.

I knew I was going to enjoy this play the moment Paterson Joseph bounded, exuberantly, on to the stage to introduce us to Charles Ignatius Sancho and to this play, which is very much a labour of love: Joseph researched, wrote and directed it himself.

A number of factors drove him, he explained, including frustration at never being offered parts in historical dramas, unlike his drama school contemporaries. There exists a myth that, in the 19th century, there were no people of colour in England –and this play is Joseph’s way of addressing that myth.

What followed was a 70 minute emotional rollercoaster which rattled through Sancho’s life, taking in its many highs & lows. Joseph is, quite simply, brilliant as Charles Ignatius Sancho, the man who was born on a slave ship (his mother died in childbirth), yet rose through society to mix with royalty and have his portrait painted by Thomas Gainsborough.

It’s this portrait which led Joseph to Sancho; he came across it while reading a book by Gretchen Gerzina called ‘Black England’. It forms the focal point of the play and remains on the stage at all times, the 300-year-old “intimate and elegantly crumbling” building that is Wilton’s Music Hall providing the perfect backdrop.

Sancho’s life itself reads like something out of a book: sold, aged 3, to three maiden sisters in Greenwich – from whom he ran away because they wouldn’t teach him to read; then found by the Duke of Montagu, who did provide him with an education – one which enabled Sancho to become a musician and composer.

The play is particularly strong in bringing the history of that period to life; previously, I’d had no idea that a large black community existed in London: servants, freemen and sailors who would organise frolics and dances in London’s parks – and who often, contrary to what’s depicted in films and TV, had white spouses and mixed heritage children.

Sancho remained resolute in refusing to be stereotyped and forged friendships with many well-known London personalities, including Laurence Sterne (of ‘Tristram Shandy’ fame) and the renowned 18th century actor David Garrick; for a while, Sancho harboured hopes of becoming an actor himself.

He was moving in exalted circles indeed; at one point, we learn, Sancho wrote a book entitled ‘Theory of Music’, which he dedicated to the Princess Royal, to whom he taught music after becoming a member of the royal household. He also became the first black Briton to vote – a symbol of how far he had risen, at a time when the majority of the white population didn’t have the vote.

The last known fact about Sancho is that, towards the end of his life, he opened a grocer’s store in Westminster. Why and how, we do not know: ‘An Act of Remembrance’ encourages us to use our imaginations to fill in the gaps.

I loved the many historical facts I gleaned, I loved learning about the irrepressible Charles Ignatius Sancho – but most of all I will remember tonight for Joseph Paterson’s performance and his joyful enthusiasm in bringing to life this most intriguing of characters.

9 comments

    • Thank you very much for your lovely comment – I’m so pleased you enjoyed the post. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Paterson Joseph toured with ‘Sancho’ again; it’s been very well received both here and in the States, so hopefully you’ll get another opportunity to see it 🙂

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  1. I find it probable that the way history has been taught in the past has not been as inclusive as it should. For those of us who get covered in the dust of ages from the old documents we study, it becomes very obvious that from early modern times England has had a very diverse ethnicity, none more so than areas surrounding our ports. The latest research from the Mary Rose Trust shows how some of the crew members came from far off places. We are a trading nation with major ports and, not least, Bristol was the setting off point for the English slave traders on their golden triangle down to Africa, across to the Caribbean and back. Sancho’s story is a wonderful one, and I wish I had seen the play. Great Review. Thanks Liz.

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    • Thank you very much, Melanie – and I completely agree; much of history is filtered down to us and traditionally we’ve seen it through a very narrow lens. Did you watch Channel 4’s recent ‘Skeletons of the Mary Rose’ documentary? It focused on special investigations into the remains of eight of the ship’s passengers, which have concluded that 50% of those eight individuals were not white English. Tudor England, it seems, was far more diverse than historians from previous generations would have us believe.

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