Heard the one about the black guy born on a slave ship in the early 18th century? He ended his days running a grocery store in Westminster. That was after a career as a famous musician, composer, author and actor. And in 1774 he became the first black Briton to vote. Never heard of him? Neither had I, until I discovered Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of the extraordinary Charles Ignatius Sancho, in 2007, in a book by historian Gretchen Gerzina called Black England.
The remarkable thing about this discovery is not that most people hadn’t a clue about such an amazing pioneer of multi-ethnic Britain, but that I, a black Briton, had no clue either. Truth is, I had presumed that the presence of black people in Britain began in 1948 with the 492 passengers (plus a stowaway), on board the ship HMT Empire Windrush when it docked at Tilbury from Montego Bay, Jamaica. Any previous dealings black people had had with the UK would have been remote, I imagined: African slavery, Caribbean plantations, etc. But was that right?” –Interview from The Guardian
Joseph Paterson created and stars in Sancho: An Act of Remembrance, featured at Chicago Shakespeare Theater from February 17-21.
We chatted with Joseph Paterson from London. This is his first time in Chicago.
How did your acting career start?
At 18 I went to a local youth theatre and was amazed at the confidence of the other kids. Some younger than me. I was under confident in public. I thought, “Acting might bring a whole set of skills to the fore that I never really knew I had.” I became very curious about my chances of becoming an actor. And, to my surprise, really, in that first session, I learnt that I could command a room if I had great words to speak. I could convince people I was a King or a Lord or an Everyman. It was, and remains, an exhilarating discovery.
You are a very rounded actor, having appeared on TV and Theater, what is the basic difference for you between camera and stage?
The basic difference, I often describe being the same as a studio session, and a live gig, for a musician. One, the enclosed studio, gives the performer the chance to hone, perfect and even drastically re-imagine the piece; safe in the knowledge that no-one sees it till it’s ready. A liberation. But with a live audience, a line must be drawn between the rehearsal room and the show. And it is just that, a show. An externalising of what has been discovered in private. It is a beautiful way to make a living, either way.
This is a most interesting play, SANCHO and a story untold. What did you learn from the first Black British voter?
First and foremost I learnt that I belong in England. It sounds abstract maybe, but that was my initial reaction to hearing the story of a black man, who lived in London a hundred years before Dickens was born. I could see London changing around me as I envisaged my ancestors walking the 18th Century streets as free people. Working, largely poor, but surviving. I owe Sancho the debt of finding a sense of belonging. There is, in my opinion, no finer help a man can give another but to guide him to where he belongs.
The character you play is Charles Ignatius Sancho, who was he?
Though born a slave, Charles Ignatius Sancho, became a valet to the Duke of Montagu, a subject of a famous Gainsborough painting, the first black man to vote in a Parliamentary Election, and the first to have his obituary published in a daily newspaper. My hero.
How did you prepare for this role?
I’d love to say, “By drinking great quantities of port and eating four pork pies a day!” But the prosaic truth is that I spent a great deal of time reading about the 18th Century London that Sancho knew. The debauchery, vibrancy, colour and noise was essential for me. What was it really like to be a black man in urban London, at a time when highwaymen and pick-purses roamed the streets, sometimes in gangs? A turbulent time in many ways, a politically strange one, with the formation of the United Kingdom fresh off the page, France and America in revolutionary turmoil. Getting into the mindset of the time was my first step, then. And it would always be my approach to a character from whatever era.
Who is your favorite author?
It’s a cheat, really, but…Shakespeare.
What do you like about Chicago most?
Dunno, haven’t been before!
What message do you want people to get from this play?
Sancho managed to vote though he was the lowest of the low by birth. This was in 1780! Imagine what he could achieve with his gumption were he born now? We owe him all our efforts to fight the conditioned, low self-esteem that stops so many black kids in their tracks. I would love those young people to look at Sancho and say, “Yes, if he can, then so can I.”
Who is your favorite actor?
Who would you most like to meet and why?
This question has been the hardest to answer, for a couple of reasons, if I may. One of those reasons is that I have a lot of great and interesting people of all ages in my life. They are infinitely fascinating and varied in their views and occupations. And the other reason is that a lot of my heroes and heroines are no longer alive: Sancho, Satchmo, Warhol, Shakespeare… but if pushed…Barack Obama. For reasons too obvious to set down here.
What is on your playlist?
Justin Bieber (Yes, Justin Bieber)
If you had just one last day on earth, how would you spend your time?
Kissing the face off my wonderful son. Bliss. X