Oxford Playhouse – Sancho: An Act of Remembrance

CST_SANCHO_By Robert Day (3)

In his actor’s note to the performance of Sancho: An Act of Remembrance, Paterson Joseph asks: “Who do you think you are?” Reintroducing this question to the audience previous to his performance, Joseph turns the question to himself, revealing an internal conflict in his response: “I struggle with who people think I am.” This response cues the audience to its role as interpreters not only of Ignatius Sancho’s life, but of Joseph’s own dialogue on that life, a dialogue that participates in a “shared British history,” where the narrative boundaries become blurred between Joseph’s witty repartee and Sancho’s allusions to the “dark” situation of the Black experience in Britain during the 1700s. By linking a sense of his own identity with the character of Sancho, Joseph makes relevant a four-hundred-year-old story to a twenty-first-century audience.

This shared history, Joseph previously thought, began with the Windrush generation (1948), but the British colonization of the Caribbean goes back to the 1600s. In addition in 1555 some Africans arrived in Britain as interpreters for trading purposes. Black musicians played at the courts of James IV of Scotland, Henry the VII and Henry the VIII. We are also well aware that Queen Elizabeth I and James I had African entertainers. The “blackamoor” population so increased in England that Elizabeth I ordered their expulsion in 1596.

Joseph segues from his introduction to the audience into the character of Sancho by visibly getting into costume without cutting his conversational tone. Against the sound of crashing waves, the audience views the opening stage setting, consisting of a tall wooden bench on which hung the actor’s costume jackets—or rather Sancho’s attire. Three wooden crates also populated the very small stage—one farther back bearing a copy of Thomas Gainsborough’s famous portrait of Sancho, one to the left, and another center stage bearing a glass of red wine and resting on a large bright red Persian rug. As Joseph steps into character he transfers Sancho’s portrait from the back of the stage to the front in plainer view of the audience; he then strikes a pose as Gainsborough’s subject, which seems to (re)member Sancho as the subject of his narrative while he mirrors his portrait. Without breaking his slightly humorous banter he then readdresses the audience with a lisp, as Ignatius Sancho—composer, writer and sometime actor. The aesthetic dissonance carried in the positioning of old wooden crates on a beautiful ornate rug speaks not just to space limitations on stage, but communicates the “oddity” of Sancho’s experience, transitioning from his birth on a slave ship in 1729 to becoming a composer, writer and the first Black Briton to vote in 1780.

Throughout the performance the narration punned on “black” and “dark.” This punning emerged in reference to the horrendous period of the triangular trade’s Middle Passage, and in reference to the always-imminent danger of the “village coven” or oppressive authority. But the vision of the “dark subject” is also introduced in the memory of a “wannabe” actor, stalled outside the theater door with the “indictment” of a speech impediment as reason for his non-entry into the acting profession. As Joseph’s Sancho “lisped” his way through the performance it was hard at first to keep from laughing, since the lisp gave the impression of a man thinking too highly of himself as an actor than he ought to think. But the audience, or at least I, sobered up the minute Sancho expressed his disappointment at rejection by widening and bulging his eyes while referring to criticisms about the “booby” actor. Suddenly, the distance between the 1700s and the 1930s and 40s almost disappeared as I remembered the experience of actors of color in early film.

Joseph foregrounds Sancho’s self-education, stimulated by John Montagu (2nd Earl of Montagu) who encouraged him to read by lending him books. The degree to which his study of literature became an intimate part of his life is sampled in the actor’s numerous Shakespearean quotes, which reveal Sancho’s ambivalence toward his relationships with white Britons. For example, the Legge sisters at Blackheath who “owned” him as a boy became in retrospect, the nightmarish “weird sisters” of Macbeth, who seemed to smile like Hamlet’s “villain.”

Sancho’s rendering of his musical accomplishments was celebrated with a hearty gulp of wine, and his compositions of songs and dances exemplified his assimilation into a sophisticated and refined British culture. Most of the music played during the performance was Sancho’s own compositions, and at one point during his dance, the actor selected a member of the audience, Susan, as his dance partner. Though actors now commonly interact with their audience, what seemed unique to me was that Joseph referred to his dance partner by name a few times while still in character after the audience member had returned to her seat. In doing so he implicated the audience as part of his act, bringing the story nearer to our present reality.

Political double talk on the Black vote pitched “words, words, words” signifying very little for Sancho in his later years. Joseph’s Sancho condenses his comparison between the socio-political climate of 1760 and that of 1780 in one fleeting memory of a man who shrugged past him in his younger days. When Sancho asked the man for the time, he replied: “Why it’s 1760.” When he had the opportunity to vote in 1780, he recalled the incident by asking himself “What is the time?” He answered: “Why it’s 1780.”

Sancho’s interest in the Black vote manifested itself in the socio-political overtone of Joseph’s performance, amplified in the reading of an excerpt of Laurence Stern’s 1766 letter to Ignatius Sancho. In it Stern asks:

at which tint of these [from the fairest to the “sootiest”], is it that the ties of blood are to cease? and how many shades must we descend lower still in the scale, ‘ere Mercy is to vanish with them?—but ’tis no uncommon thing, my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half of it like brutes, and then endeavour to make ’em so.

During the reading of Stern’s letter all stage lights were switched off except for a soft spotlight on Joseph, giving the effect of a gentle urging to meditate. One might ponder not only the situation past, but consider the present status of the Black Briton. Joseph places at the forefront, the modern Black Briton’s freedom to vote when Sancho, desperate to participate in elections, finds his permission papers (for voting) in the little cup of his daughter Kitty who died at the age of five. Sancho expresses his joy at the recovery of this document by kissing the cup and shouting his daughter’s name. At this point the performance ends and all lights are switched off, leaving the audience with a distilled sense of an ongoing and constantly evolving, unbroken narrative of remembrance.

Cherrie Gottsleben

Cherrie Gottsleben is a doctoral student of early modern British literature at Northern Illinois University, where she is also undertaking undergraduate studies in French. Her areas of interest include Shakespearean politics of identity, John Milton, and the religio-political pamphlet wars of seventeenth-century Britain. Her interests in theory focus on the thought of Michel de Certeau, René Girard, Michel Foucault and Tzvetan Todorov. She holds an MA in English from Northeastern Illinois University.