The Meaning of Zong

Giles Terera
Bristol Old Vic
Barbican Centre

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Giles Terera as Olaudah Equiano and Tristan Sturrock as Granville Sharp Credit: Jemima Yong
Kiera Lester as Ama Credit: Jemima Yong
Giles Terera as Olaudah Equiano Credit: Jemima Yong
Ényì Okoronkwo as Ottobah Cugoano and Giles Terera as Olaudah Equiano Credit: Jemima Yong
The Meaning of Zong Credit: Jemima Yong
Kezrena James and onstage musical director and composer Sidiki Dembele Credit: Jemima Yong

In 1783, when insurers refused to pay out on a claim for insured cargo lost at sea, its owners went to court and won. Nothing exceptional about that you may think, but this cargo was human. At the end of November, two years earlier, these traders had taken the wrong course as they neared the end of the “middle passage” of the triangular trading route that linked England with Africa and the West Indies. Fearing they would run out of fresh water, they solved that problem by throwing slaves overboard.

The Zong had left Accra with 442 slaves; only 208 reached Jamaica. 62 had already died of disease or by accident (along with some of the crew), 132 were thrown overboard, women and children first, and 10 men chose to jump rather than be thrown.

Olaudah Equiano, an educated slave (named Gustavus Vassa by his owner) who had save enough to buy his freedom, saw a report of the trial and alerted anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp, and when the appeal against the original judgement was heard by the Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield, in Westminster Hall, they sought to get the perpetrators prosecuted for murder.

Giles Terera’s play not only presents Equiano and Sharp’s campaigning and the appeal proceeding, it also imagines the dreadful journey of three of the women slaves from the time they are sold to the trader while Equiano also reclaims his own identity. This is all framed by a present-day scene in a bookshop where a customer objects to the placing of a book on the slave trade in the African History section and insists it be shelved as British History.

Writer Terera co-directs with Tom Morris and also plays Equiano. He looks resplendent in an elegant red outfit, but his fine performance is part of an excellent ensemble. Tristan Sturrock is Sharp and Ényì Okoronkwo former slave and active abolitionist Ottobah Cugoano, whose passionate outburst in Westminster Hall sees him throw into prison, and Rona Morison is Annie Greenwood, the shorthand writer who transcribed the trial.

Kezrena James, Kiera Lester and Bethan Mary James as the women slaves (the latter also a dignified Lord Mansfield) provide a few moments of humour without being any less moving; they provide a reminder that slavery denied its victims not only freedom but their history, their culture and even their identity.

Jean Chan’s design provides for swift action on a bare stage with the help of a few planks, which can become anything from bookshelves to printing presses, form a tree or a ship’s cabin. With the help of Tom Newell’s video, she makes dazzling images as the ocean takes over or the hammer beams of Westminster Hall swivel to form the Zong’s hull.

The framing device and the episode when a woman slave survives by grabbing a trailing rope could be trimmed a little and the overlapping energy of women’s voices sometimes runs counter to clarity, but this is a production that is theatrically engaging as well as a passionate presentation of past wrongs.

Musician Sidiki Dembele often punctuates or underscores the action and, at the start of the performance, brings the audience into the action with his remarkable drumming. As the action occasionally moves out into the auditorium, it reinforces the point that this horrific past belongs to all Britons and that we are still not free from the evils of racism. His drumming makes the audience complicit from the start.

The Meaning of Zong has only a few performances at the Barbican. This is a production that needs to be seen much more widely.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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