The New York Times
December 11, 2015
He was an actor, a composer, a writer and a grocer. He was painted by Gainsborough and corresponded with the novelist Laurence Sterne. He was Charles Ignatius Sancho — black, born on a slave ship and believed to be, in 1774, the first black Briton to cast a vote.
“Most people have never heard of him,” said the British actor Paterson Joseph, whose solo show, “Sancho: An Act of Remembrance,” opens at BAM Fisher on Wednesday. “But his story is an amazing one. He refused to be trapped by the color of his skin; he had aspirations to art, culture — and little access but forced his way in.”
Mr. Joseph, probably best known in the United States for his role as the cult leader Holy Wayne in HBO’s “The Leftovers,” might have been talking about himself. He is a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company who has performed leading roles at the National Theater, on the West End and in several television series, including “Peep Show.”
But when he told his sister he wanted to go to drama school, he recalled in a telephone interview, she said: “Why bother? You’re only going to be playing servants and slaves.” Not me, he replied.
Mr. Joseph, 51, was born to parents who had emigrated to England from the Caribbean island St. Lucia a few years before he was born. His father was a plasterer, his mother a ward orderly in a hospital, and he grew up in a working-class area in northwest London with four sisters and a brother. (“In a three-bedroom flat above a shop called This and That,” he explained.)
Playing the violent Bill Sikes in a school production of “Oliver Twist” was a turning point. “I wasn’t very good at school,” he said. “Doing that play was the first time I got compliments from people.”
After working briefly as a cook and acting with an amateur group, Mr. Joseph received a grant to study drama, eventually attending the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Bearing his sister’s words in mind, he decided, he said, “to become as classical an actor as possible.”
After leaving the London Academy, he found steady employment, performing with Cheek by Jowl and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and starring in productions of “The Royal Hunt of the Sun” and “The Emperor Jones.” He was working on the 2000 film “The Beach” when one of his co-stars, the actress Tilda Swinton, asked him what he would like to leave as a legacy.
“I heard myself saying, ‘I’d like to write about black Britain before 1948, so that black kids would know something of what came before,’ ” he recounted, explaining that most Britons presumed that black immigration began at that time, with the well-known arrival of 492 passengers on a ship from Montego Bay in Jamaica.