Written by Giles Terera
Directed by Tom Morris & Giles Terera
In this mortal valley of howling yaps and indistinguishable guttural cries – one voice is enough to command the room, to prick the ear of the right people. To change history.
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. But The Meaning of Zong is 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’s writing 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. Higgins in particular a staunch figure, his presence influential and encouraging to those surrounding him as the more traditionally scholarly of the trio.
The spiritual and conveyance of mortality comes through within the production’s choreographed movements and exquisite soundscape, tying this aethereal presence into the storytelling – manifesting within the tales the slaves share, principally the reference to the Akan folklore Anansi, a being of knowledge, cunning and significant importance. 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 silence is deafening, utilised to perfection throughout the evening. Nowhere more significant than when marring the audiences’ contentment – a magnificent pairing to Michael Elcock’s combative intermingling with the crowd, jostling them to act, to scream of the vulgar hypocrisies and treatment of slaves. The audible gulp is excruciating. The noise of an audience swallowing their guilt, knowing they should cry out, choking on their remorse is excruciatingly powerful.
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 in the spirit of the Spider God herself, 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.
The three morph the dimensions of the space, engorging its stretch beyond the realms of superficial storytelling and lifting the stone and masonry of the theatre away. And as eloquent as Terera’s writing has been, his direction of Lester through the story of the slave who clung to the Ships’ side is a transformative sequence of distinction. The aerial dynamics as Lester is thrown from the ship, and the siren calls of her drowned sisters, children and brothers are a deceptive call to this desperate woman.
Jean Chan’s set & costume design 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.
A masterstroke execution on the putrid legacy of slavery, the turned faces, the swallowed tongues and the backs and bones which laid the figurative, and literal, foundations of the country – The Meaning of Zong deserves 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.
The Meaning of Zong runs at the Royal Lyceum from April 13th – 23rd. Tickets for which can be obtained here.