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Study Guide | Theater

Sancho: An Act of Remembrance

“Without a vote, I am no better than a slave.”
—Charles Ignatius Sancho

In 1965, amid a great deal of fanfare and celebration, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act. Along with the Civil Rights Act of that same year, the law was designed to put an end to the period known as “Jim Crow.” African-Americans in the South had been granted the legal right to vote a century before, as slavery came to a close with the Union victory in the Civil War. But with the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the withdrawal of troops that had been stationed in the South, a century of discrimination and unspeakable brutality, led by groups like the Ku Klux Klan, ensured that the descendants of former slaves would have no voice in their own political destiny. Now the nightmare of terror, lynchings, poll taxes, so-called “grandfather” clauses, and countless other means deployed to keep African-Americans out of the voting booth was finally over.

Or so it seemed.

As we approach another presidential election season, the rights of minorities to vote is under greater threat than it has been in half a century. Gone is the terror of groups like the Klan; in its place we have seen judicial decisions and legislation that seem explicitly designed to prevent certain groups from exercising their right to vote. In 2013, the Supreme Court made a landmark decision in Shelby County v. Holder, essentially gutting the guarantees of the Voting Rights Act by ruling that any changes made to local, municipal or state voting laws no longer had to be approved by the federal government. Since that ruling, no fewer than 17 states have implemented laws that, while apparently created to prevent voter fraud, will have the effect of turning us back towards the days of Jim Crow. Writing in The Nation, Ari Berman notes that under South Carolina’s new law requiring a government-issued photo ID to cast a vote, 63,000 minority voters will be shut out of the polls. Across states with variations on these new laws, minority voters are 20% more likely to not have the required documentation. And one in 13 African-Americans will not be able to vote because of felon disenfranchisement laws.

Recently, artists have stepped up to remind us of the sacrifices made so that minorities might have that most basic of civil rights: the vote. Film director Ava DuVernay’s 2014 epic Selma portrays the brutal acts of violence committed against protesters led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as they fought for civil rights in Alabama in the 1960s. The new film Free State of Jones takes us back to the end of Reconstruction, showing us in one scene an African-American man lynched in Mississippi in 1876 simply for registering his fellow former slaves to vote. And in the piece you are about to see, the great British actor Paterson Joseph takes us even further back, to the forgotten story of Ignatius Charles Sancho. Sancho, a freed slave, was the first person of African descent to cast a vote in a British Parliamentary election. Joseph’s one-man show is subtitled “An Act of Remembrance.” Indeed, he teaches us about an amazing person long forgotten by history, but his work is also an unfortunately timely reminder that the struggle for basic rights is still very much a part of our lives today.

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