Updated: Apr 23
Review by Rosie Holmes
Giles Terera’s new play, The Meaning of Zong, is a show full of urgency, one that tells of the atrocities of the transatlantic slave trade whilst brimming with pride for its survivors. Commissioned by the Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre, the play was initially planned for 2020, but the interruption of the pandemic saw its production delayed, and the story was repurposed as a radio play. Now in London for the first time, it is enjoying a short run at the Barbican Theatre.
The Meaning of Zong tells the true story of the Zong massacre in the late 18th century. The Zong was a transatlantic slave ship from which 132 enslaved Africans were thrown overboard and drowned in order to avoid water shortages onboard. The Liverpool-based owners of the ship subsequently attempted to claim insurance for the loss of human cargo, an action that caused former slave Oloaudah Equiano and anti-slavery campaigner to work together to sue the company for murder.
The piece primarily hinges upon the court case that took place in the days following the tragedy, and what the audience sees whilst watching the case is very much true. Playwright Giles Terera (who also stars in the cast) extensively researched the events of 1781, using the records of this case which still exist, kept in the Greenwich Maritime Museum, a fact that makes the recreation of these events on stage all the more chilling and uncomfortable to watch. Enslaved Africans are referred to as “cargo” and “property” and are likened to beasts, making this play an uncomfortable but powerful watch. Yet, it was one that led to me watching with my jaw genuinely open at the way in which human beings were spoken about verbatim in a court of law.
Whilst the case is perhaps the central point of the show, it is cleverly framed by a modern-day setting. The play opens with the announcement that the Waterstones bookshop is due to close shortly. After a customer questions why a book about the slave trade (the British slave trade) is in the African history section, the shop manager refuses to accept responsibility for this oversight, perpetuating a culture of unaccountability, summed up by the powerful line “inaction is a form of brutality” that underpins much of the narrative throughout the whole play as well as reminding us of the absolute importance why stories like this need to be told.
Whilst some heavy themes are at play here, the show is not morose. Terera injects the piece with humour, reminding us of the humanity of the enslaved people aboard the ship that the slave traders and the lawyers present on the insurance case seemed to forget so easily. Three women aboard The Zong, fearing for their life, comically discuss how their mothers made jollof rice, and argue over the correct and best method. Reminding us that, whilst this atrocity happened hundreds of years ago, the people present are just like us, debating whose mum is the best cook. Moreover, the show is full of easily digestible one-liners such as “I do not ask you to be defined by slavery, I dare you to outlive it”, which had me scribbling in my notebook to write as many as possible down. This is a huge success of the show; remembering so many impactful lines is clearly a sign of powerful and effective writing.
Similarly, whilst the piece is confronting and sometimes upsetting, it left me feeling energised. Beginning and ending with music, whilst being a play, this is a show in which music plays a vital part. The music by Sidiki Dembele is effective throughout the piece, opening with live djembe drumming beginning a call and response with the audience, an interactive element that continues throughout the piece, which allows the audience to feel even more connected to the show. By using traditional instruments, Dembele effectively integrates the victims of the Zong massacre’s cultural origins with the drama onstage.
Giles Terera not only wrote and co-directs the piece but also stars as abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. Terera shines, commanding the stage as he appears, but never overshadowing the rest of the cast, as this is, for all intents and purposes, an ensemble piece with all cast members playing a vital part in the show’s storytelling. Paul Higgins, known best for his role in Line of Duty, appears as Granville Sharp in an assured performance bringing wonderful nuance to a complicated character. Ényì Okoronkwo appears as Ottobah Cugoano bringing a wonderful energy that felt reminiscent of roles in Hamilton in an inspiring performance. Some of the most powerful performances came from Bethan Mary James, Alice Vilanculo and Kiera Lester as three women aboard the Zong, fearful for what awaited them. All three deliver powerful and endearing performances that will undoubtedly stay with me for a long time.
Another star of the show is undoubtedly Jean Chan’s set design. A fairly blank stage is quickly transformed into Westminster Hall; its arched hammer beam roof is then inverted to become the bow of the ship, one of the most clever and effective set changes I have seen at the theatre. It reminds us that whilst a blind eye can be turned to the atrocities of the slave trade, it is, in fact, all around. Similarly, whilst grander set pieces are undoubtedly showstoppers, at times, the darkened stage with only a spotlight and the actors themselves are just as effective.
Behind the action is a large video screen. Whilst this works well to create the stained glass of Westminster Hall, at times it felt like the visuals on screen didn’t fit so well with the aesthetic of the piece and in fact were not needed. Moreover, there were a few pacing issues that could be worked on; whilst the play certainly picked up, the first 20 minutes did feel a little slow, and some scenes were a little too long, particularly the scene in which Lester’s Ama is in the sea.
That being said, this is a hugely successful piece. At times it was uncomfortable to watch, but that is what makes this show such a success. It's confronting, but as Terera writes, ‘for me it was about finding a way to tell this story so that the audience could listen to it, hear it, see it without fear’, and he has achieved that in spades. This is not simply a morose piece of theatre; it is defiant and shows its pride for those who campaigned against and survived the slave trade. Aware of its contemporary relevance, it feels ever more important in a time where more and more we are becoming aware of the links to the slave trade in the very cities we live in today. I would urge everyone to go and watch this story and learn more about what is most definitely British history.
The Meaning of Zong plays at the Barbican until Sunday 23rd April 2023. Tickets from https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2023/event/the-meaning-of-zong-giles-terera
Photos by Jemima Yong