Writer: Giles Terera
Director(s): Tom Morris & Giles Terera
Two hundred years ago, Olaudah Equiano recounts the reports of a massacre aboard the slave ship Zong, where one-hundred and thirty-two Africans were thrown overboard to preserve the lives of the crew. Seen as no more than property, insurance to claim, Equiano joins with anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp to condemn these actions, to re-open the blinded eyes of justice, and help set in motion to ripples that led to the abolition movement in the UK.
But the narrative transcends deeper than many at first envisage; the mission extends from the courtroom to the press pits, the seas and the ocean floors. After having purchased his freedom, Olaudah faces an intimate battle of the erasure his past – passed from owner to owner, an all too mortifying, but familiar, tale. Giles Terera’s valiant and innovative debut play,The Meaning of Zong,is as much a story of the sins of our past as it is a contemporary tale. Celebrating the human spirit as much as paying tribute to those lost – serving as an inspirational story, rather than one of reprimanding.
At an initial glance, those looking to the surface level will see Terera’s writing for one element – the condemnation of slavery, and the absolute blind-sighted ignorance prevailing to this day. The very significance of the production opening in a bookstore in which British history is sorely lacking in those whose names do not adorn the blue plagues of the streets they built and sold upon is a telling feature. ButThe Meaning of Zongis a communal piece, a coming together for betterment.
Writer and director, taking the central role of Equiano, Terera is a name that deserves to be commonplace on the lips of theatre engagers.The Meaning of Zong’swriting is delicate, despite its refusal to shirk pain or discomfort, and borrows elements of genre-specific forms and techniques – transforming the atrocities into accessible entrances for an audience. Together, he, Paul Higgins (Sharp) and Eliza Smith share a significant level of stage time, authentic in repose, and charming in their barbs and jests.
Composer and Musical Director Sidiki Dembele’s presence onstage honours the production’s value of music, as well as instils the importance of West African and Caribbean instrumentals and storytelling. The language Dembele imbues into the show is as valued as Terera’s writing.
But Terera’s work is not solely a shattering of the frosted perceptions audiences have surrounding slavery, it seeks not to sift in the agony of history and instead offer autonomy to the forgotten, and the loudest voice sits not with the men or the lawyers, but with the women on stage. Kiera Lester, Bethan Mary-James, and Alice Vilanculo provide a distinctive presence to the production’s second half, a more nuanced approach than the more bombastic, though no-less effective mannerisms and words of Higgins, Terera or Elcock.
Jean Chan’s set translates additional dimensions – as the courthouse rafters make way to the timbers of the Zong itself, before framing Mary-James or Vilanculo in the illusionary skeleton of the ship, a coffin, sunken to the depths of the oceans. But despite these impressive set dressings, which utilise a sizable chunk of the Lyceum’s stage space, they are cleverly used – instead of relying more on the scraps of wood and hollow drums to aid in character communications.
The Meaning of Zongdeserves a full house every night. And not solely as a tool to educate and enlighten, it deserves recognition for its masterfully adept stagecraft and storytelling techniques. Audiences owe it to themselves, and to millions of others to engage with these stories; stories the world needs to hear, to parry the lessons we fail to heed. A resonating achievement, poignant and glistening with brilliance.
Runs until 23 April 2022 | Image: Curtis Richard