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The Meaning of Zong

Giles Terera
Bristol Old Vic Theatre Company
Bristol Old Vic

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Giles Terera (Equiano) and Paul Higgins (Granville Sharp) Credit: @curtisrichardphotography.
Alice Vilanvulo, Kiera Lester and Bethan Mary James - the captured slaves Credit: @curtisrichardphotography.
Michael Elcock and Giles Terera - abolition campaigners Cugoano and Equiano Credit: @curtisrichardphotography.

"The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there," a phrase often quoted to put some distance between the behaviours of those in our history and how we consider ourselves now. But in The Meaning of Zong, writer Giles Terera points out how the many roots of the society we live in today lie in its links to the late 18th century. The massively influential world of The Enlightenment, Mozart, Turner… and, the notorious Slave Trade.

Terera cleverly bridges these 200 years in the opening scene in a London bookshop where a modern customer challenges the location of a book on the slave trade located in the African history section of the shop, when it could more likely be in the British history section—as Terera says, "between George III and Queen Victoria".

Based on the story of the Zong Massacre, where the crew of the slave ship Zong threw 132 slaves overboard in order to avoid a water shortage for the remaining crew and human cargo, The Meaning of Zong pivots around the court case brought by the insurance company against the owners of the ship for losses they claimed were necessitated by maritime conditions. On the one hand, the courtroom drama arising out of the legal arguments provide tension and jeopardy as the judge approaches his verdict. On the other, Terera also relates the story of the imprisoned Africans below deck as a counterbalance. An equally dramatic and superbly moving and dignified portrait of those overlooked souls—a theatrical equivalent of the modern victim statement.

Terera takes inspiration from the African tradition of storytelling, where the writer and performer are one and the same and engage the audience’s emotions directly. Suitably, Terera himself plays the part of Oloudah Equiano, a former slave and leading black campaigner involved in the case. This storytelling is energised by traditional dance movement by the ensemble (devised by Ingrid Mackinnon) and live musical accompaniment from the talented Sidiki Dembele using traditional instruments integrating the soundscape of the victims’ cultural origins with the drama on stage and actively employing both cast and audience.

Jean Chan’s set transforms the huge hammerbeam roof of Westminster Hall, the setting of the court case, and cleverly inverts the beams to become the bows of the Zong. At one moment, the sparse, stripped wood surrounding the slaves and enclosing their despair in one part of the story is juxtaposed against the magnificence of the iconic medieval building at the heart of a justice system that can only listen to legal arguments and not morals.

Abolitionist Wilberforce said in the 18th century, "you can choose to look the other way but you can never again say you did not know," which does not seem so different from the words of Martin Luther King 200 years later, "he who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it." We are not so different from the people who lived 200 years ago as we would like to think. It’s a harsh and uncomfortable evening for many to sit through, but Terera uses humour to help us, and, as he points out, only by telling the story can we shine a light on our mistakes and move forwards. "I don’t need you to be sorry, I need you to be better," says Granville Sharp, Equiano’s co-campaigner.

It’s a hugely ambitious evening with possibly too many densely packed themes. In the circumstances, it seems harsh to point to those few moments which could be cut back: the side story of the other abolitionist campaigners and the length of Ama’s struggle in the sea did feel like unnecessary distractions. But Terera’s gifted storytelling approach and light-touch humour, together with a great supporting cast (Paul Higgins, Michael Elcock, Remi King, Kiera Lester, Alice Vilanculo, Bethan Mary James, Simon Holland Roberts and Eliza Smith), is a tremendous accomplishment. Fittingly produced here in Bristol, a city trying to come to terms with its own associations with this dark period in British history.

Reviewer: Joan Phillips