The Gift of Remembrance

Photo by Richard Termine

Photo by Richard Termine

The Holidays. A time of  joy and warmth where comfort and communion come wrapped up in a year’s worth of good intentions. Aren’t people nicer in December? For me, it is usually the cool shifts in weather that mark the start of a period of forced introspection. As we crawl into the new year, so many of us, who perhaps don’t do so often, take a moment to look backwards. We take a mirror to our shoulder and see, perhaps, a reflection of the trail we’ve left behind. Who was it that said ‘understanding where we’ve come from helps us understand where we are going’ ? Someone important, I bet. And speaking of important, I learned recently at BAM about the life of a seemingly unimportant figure, significantly missing from our periphery, and, in the most necessary way, given an exceptional second chance.

Remembrance, or the action of remembering something; a memory or recollection is as much a centerpiece of the holidays as the iconic decorative fir. Sancho: An Act of Remembrance, which recently played at BAM Fisher as part of the 2015 Next Wave Festival, recalls the story of an ‘amazing pioneer of multi-ethnic Britain’ that reveals the eccentric and entertaining journey of his life as a rather historically important Black Briton. Written and performed radiantly by Paterson Joseph, (Peep Show, Æon Flux and the Royal Shakespeare Company productions of King Lear and Love’s Labour’s Lost) Sancho is a playful look into the life of Charles Ignatius Sancho. In an act of reconstructing a life from the outside in, we started the journey with a warm and honest welcome by Joseph. This welcome functioned as the platform that would let us to recognize Joseph’s own eccentricities—a tool we would later need to recognize his comical asides not only as Sancho, but as himself. The world created around him was as conservative as his transitions, both keeping a steady beat on the piece as a whole by maintaining control of an environment that would otherwise be ‘rocked’ by the story. Sancho comes to life in front of our eyes after we are introduced to his portrait; a replica of the original painted by Thomas Gainsborough. Here’s a fun experiment that will help expedite the point—wikipedia the dude, and see the images of “selected works.” You won’t find a black man amongst the portraits. Yet a black man he did paint, and his name was Charles Ignatius Sancho.

In his author’s note, Paterson Joseph admits that he, a Black Briton, had never heard of the subject of his play until he discovered the portrait in a book by historian Gretchen Gerzina titled Black England. This threw Joseph for a loop. He could not believe that he had no idea about the life of this man, and so in the early 2000’s he began a very lengthy research period. His research paid off. Years later, we the audience sat in front of what felt like a revived spirit of a man that was both present and forever immortalized in oil. The story of Sancho is an extraordinary one and was told flawlessly by Joseph, who specialized in highlighting the quirky, lisp-owning, humorous entertainer that was Sancho. At one poignant moment in the remembrance, Sancho sets up his audience with a mad-lib like line when he explains how he would have never made it in the entertainment business because of _________.  I’m unsure if someone actually said it, or if it was part of his set-up, but he echoed with, “my color? No not because of my color. Because of my speech impediment!” Joseph’s gesticular language is only proof of the precision of not only his imagined impersonation, but of his own comic virtuosity.  The piece was sprinkled with moments like these that reinforced what Paterson Joseph learned in his research about Sancho: that he was ‘black, smart, humorous’ and he ‘appealed to those who knew that Africans were not merely the “beasts of burden” as the slave traders portrayed them.’  The journey culminates in a heartwarming (and eye opening) story of Sancho, a recent property owner, and his son claiming the right to vote. Sounds simple. Sounds anticlimactic. Sounds ‘given.’ Amongst the disenfranchised and dissatisfied, Sancho reminds us of a most unappreciated gift that we, as American’s possess—the right to vote.

The act of remembrance carries with it the gleam of hope of a realization through repetition, and if this light is to burn brighter during this time of forced introspection, then Sancho fulfilled its duty in reminding me, and hopefully everyone else that has witnessed it, through the most magnificent vessel that is Paterson Joseph, that we shouldn’t take liberty for granted, that even if ‘free’ we can still be prisoners of something like a speech impediment, or society’s standards, or rules. An understanding of shared history, a humble remembrance of the disenfranchised, and within it the hope for an awareness that can break patterns was a most welcome gift to receive this holiday season.

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