In 1781, 132 enslaved Africans were murdered when they were thrown overboard the Zong, a ship owned by Liverpool slave traders William Gregson. The company made a claim on its insurance for loss of the slaves. The insurers refused to pay but a resulting court case found in favour of the slave traders.
The Meaning of Zong tells the story of what happened next when abolitionist Olaudah Equiano told anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp about the massacre. Their work helped kickstart the journey to the outlawing of slavery.
The powerful play is written by Giles Terera, who won an Olivier best actor award for his role in musical phenomenon Hamilton. Originally due to be staged in 2020, The Meaning of Zong, which Terera co-directs with Tom Morris, has finally opened at the Bristol Old Vic and it is absolutely brilliant.
The Meaning of Zong
The action begins in modern times in a Foyles bookshop. A woman finds a book about slavery in the African history section and protests to the store manager that it should be on the British history shelves.
Olaudah Equiano, played spectacularly by Giles Terera, appears from the past and and we are transformed back to the 18th century and the brutal story of the Zong.
Everything about this show is superb, including the set. Simple planks of wood and coloured sheets are moved around by the cast to create bookshelves and crackling fires. In a very memorable scene, the rafters of Westminster Hall, where lawyers for the insurers and the slave trading company argue their points, become the structure of the Zong; reflecting how the slave trade permeated through many elements of British society.
The music, performed by Sidiki Dembele and his African instruments, is amazing. His drums add extreme tension to the dark moments but also several points of joy as the audience are invited to clap along.
There’s very little actual violence in the show but the brutality is very much there, particularly in the scenes with Kiera Lester, Bethan Mary-James and Alice Vilanculo as three enslaved women captured on board the Zong and battling to survive.
There’s also a very powerful moment when political activist Ottobah Cugoano, played by Michael Elcock, turns to the audience, looks us straight in the eye and says: “This is all true. This actually happened.”
It’s no fairytale. This is real life.
The Meaning of Zong reminds us of those awful times hundreds of years ago but with references to Colston, recent wars and battles for equality, how the issue is still very much with us today.
The Meaning of Zong is at Bristol Old Vic until 9 April and then from 26 April until 7 May.