What stories get to appear on our great stages and who gets to tell them?
This is a timely question and one that is particularly apt for Sancho: An Act of Remembrance. The one-man show about the life of Charles Ignatius Sancho (ca.1729-80) began when Paterson Joseph entered the theater in eighteenth-century dress and identified himself as a black Briton. Born to an African mother on the Middle Passage, Sancho would become a composer, a valet, a businessman and the first black man to vote in England, among other accomplishments.
But when Joseph took the stage and first spoke to us in direct address, he was not yet in character.
Instead, the actor, who also happens to be the playwright and co-director, begins the play as himself and recounts a brief history of other black Britons. There is Sancho from the eighteenth century, there are “too many blackamoors in London,” according to Queen Elizabeth I in the late sixteenth century, and there is Septimus Severus, an African who ruled Roman Britain in the early third century. This all serves as a rebuttal to every director or producer who refused to cast Joseph in the plays of Shakespeare or adaptations of classic literature. The problem of casting him was one of authenticity. If there weren’t black people in England in 1600, then how can there be, say, a black Hamlet? (Of course, there is never any worry about the audience going along with that bit about the ghost.) Joseph jokes that Sancho emerged from his “vanity,” and desire “to be in a costume drama.” Framed this way, the piece is about excavating a forgotten history, on the one hand, and about the politics of our present theatricality, on the other.
As Joseph ends his induction, he assumes the portly posture and slight lisp of Sancho. It is now 1768 and our subject is also the subject of Thomas Gainsborough, who produced a portrait of Sancho in the same year. Posing before a replica of the painting, Sancho recalls and acts out episodes from the first forty years of his life.
The theatricality of Sancho is pronounced. A white cloth that first serves as his gentlemanly cravat becomes his mother’s wimple as he narrates her birth pangs aboard the slave ship where she died, and then it transforms again into “the wretched screaming bundle” of the infant baptized as Charles Ignatius in New Granada. Soon after, our protagonist is “deposited … as a gift” to “three maiden sisters of Greenwich,” who costume him as a romance hero for their own entertainment. He is an Arabian Prince, a Pirate, and, finally, Sancho Panza, the clownish companion of Don Quixote. He is educated, secretly, by the Duke of Montagu not only in letters but in culture as well. To demonstrate the sort of music he composed and the dancing of the age, Sancho invites an audience member up to the stage for a quick and charming lesson. In a slight Irish brogue, he quotes a letter from Laurence Sterne, author of Tristam Shandy, and he affects his other friend, David Garrick, in his career-making role of Richard III.
All of these overtly theatrical acts highlight the conventions of dramatic performance. On stage, a piece of cloth can be anything. A single man can represent multiple characters, sometimes performing parts of other plays within the play of Sancho. It is make-believe and meta-theatre, but of the usual sort that has defined theatre for about the last 2,500 years. It’s what we accept when we enter the theatre. It’s why twenty-first century audiences don’t roll their eyes when the ghost enters in Hamlet. And yet, to return to Joseph’s opening monologue about black Britons and period dress, our imaginations allow for all sorts of pretending until the question of race comes up and then there is a sudden concern with authenticity and accuracy—in the theater of all places.
Joseph’s own quest for a leading role in an English costume drama is part of a larger conversation on the lack of race-conscious casting in classic and historical roles. Last September, 007 author Anthony Horowitz dismissed Idris Elba as “too street” to play the martini-sipping James Bond. In Sunday’s New York Times, a feature on diversity in Hollywood included an anecdote from Wendell Pierce on being told by a casting director, “I couldn’t put you in a Shakespeare movie, because they didn’t have black people back then.” Hopefully, they’ve gotten the Hamilton memo.
Where else is the Shakespeare in all this? you might be asking. Well, where isn’t it?
The improbable and remarkable life of Ignatius Sancho is part of the age of David Garrick and Dr. Johnson, that is, the point in the past 400 years when Shakespeare began to become Shakespeare. Allusions to the works appear throughout the play. Sancho refers to the Greenwich women as “the Weird Sisters,” he talks about his failed attempt at auditioning for Othello (a role only played by white men until 1833), and he twice punctuates his exasperation with racism by quoting Hamlet’s “words, words, words.” The first utterance occurs just after he describes the trouble he got into as a boy when he was found with a book by one of the sisters. They intended to keep him illiterate, a state suitable to his “rank,” not as a servant but as an African. Hamlet’s words appear again in the second act of the play, a single day in 1780 in which Sancho participates in parliamentary elections. Between pulling out publications containing arguments for “reducing the number of Blacks,” in England and being challenged to prove with his property papers his eligibility to vote, Sancho angrily repeats, “words, words, words.” Throughout his life, words, in their written form, have been used in an attempt to keep Sancho in his place. But he has become a man of letters.
At the play’s end, Sancho removes the more baroque parts of his eighteenth-century costume and stands before us as he began the play, in his white shirt and breeches. There was a moment there, a pause without the character-defining lisp, in which I didn’t know if it was Ignatius Sancho or Paterson Joseph who stood before me. In my confusion, I think I saw both, and I think I was meant to see both.
Gina Di Salvo is an assistant professor of theatre history and dramaturgy at the University of Tennessee. She is also a professional dramaturg and an Artistic Associate of Sideshow Theatre Company in Chicago.