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Paterson Joseph: 'Denying black people their place in historical dramas is ignorant of British history'

The actor and playwright talks about his one-man show, which is finally making its London premiere

Paterson Joseph in Sancho: An Act of Remembrance
(© Robert Day)

Paterson Joseph's theatre career spans over 30 years with some of the country's most respected theatre institutions. His early credits with the RSC included King Lear, Love's Labour's Lost and The Last Days of Don Juan, which earned him second prize in the 1991 Ian Charleson Awards. Other notable stage credits include Othello at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, The Royal Hunt of the Sun and The Emperor Jones at the National. Since 2011, Joseph has been touring his one-man show internationally, and now Sancho: An Act of Remembrance receives its London premiere at Wilton's Musical Hall from 4 to 16 June. We caught up with Joseph to find out more about Sancho and why he decided to tell this story.




Who is Charles 'Sancho' Ignatius?
Very little is actually known about the details of his early life. The theory is that he was born on a slave ship, his mother died – possibly in childbirth – and his father committed suicide very soon afterwards. His owner then sent him, at three years-old, to live with three spinsters in Greenwich, but he ran away because they wouldn't teach him how to read. He was found by the Duke of Montagu who taught him secretly how to read and write and he grew up to be a musician and a composer, and one of the first British Africans to be able to vote.

Why did you want to tell this story?
I was desperate to do a costume drama. A lot of people were saying there weren't any black people in England before the 1940s and the Windrush generation. But I was determined to find some history and I discovered Sancho in a book called Black England by Gretchen Gerzina, he stood out for me because his life was so theatrical and extraordinary.

So was it a case of 'there's not many black roles in costume dramas so I'll write one myself'?
No, not quite. To me, when casting directors and producers deny black people their place in historical dramas, it is based on their ignorance of British and colonial history. That was the point of doing this show, to say 'we were here ages ago, we've been here since Roman Britain'. It's not a story about black people, it's a story about British people and who we are as an island race and how mixed we have always been.

Paterson Joseph in Sancho: An Act of Remembrance
(© Robert Day)

What did you make of that Quentin Letts' review?
It's just straight up racism. I don't think it's a complicated issue, if you see somebody in a cast and you think they're a bit sh*t, then they're a bit sh*t, or they're miscast. They're not bad because they're actually from an ethnic minority. That doesn't make sense in anybody's logic. So it can only be that he's a racist and his way of expressing himself as a critic is racist and that should be dealt with.

You've toured this play across America for quite a while, what was the reaction there?
It turned out to be a very modern story because Sancho is desperate to find the right papers in order to be able to vote. When I went to the Kennedy Centre a few years ago, I discovered it was a live story for the people in the audience. These three old African American women got up at the end and said 'sonny that's not an old story, that's happening to us today'.

And now you find yourself bringing the show to London while the country is embroiled in the Windrush scandal...
It's a horrible coincidence. When I started writing this, around 2003, I just saw it as a bit of history to help people to understand how they lived back then. What I did not imagine was that I would be performing this in London when we're having to defend my parent's generation and their right to be British citizens. It's incredible and incredibly sad, but the timing couldn't be more perfect.

Paterson Joseph in Sancho: An Act of Remembrance
(© Robert Day)

Does it get lonely doing a one-man show?
I probably wouldn't write a one-man show again, because it is such a lonely pursuit, it's so much better sharing a play with other performers. The worst thing was doing a press night, buying doughnuts and champagne for everybody and then sitting on my own for half an hour after the show because everybody else was doing technical things.

What would like you to do next? Writing-wise and acting?
There's lots of stories I'd like to tell, I'm slightly obsessed with Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania and who Nelsen Mandela looked up to, I want to know who that man is. In terms of performing, I'm just desperate to do Othello again, I haven't felt that for a while, I haven't done it for over a decade but I feel like I'm ready now.

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