THE enlightened populace of the 21st century can hardly get its head around the idea that, not too long ago, our ancestors regarded human beings as property to be insured, and compensated for, just as any other commodity.
If we look not too deeply into it, there are STILL some landed gentry living off the income from invested slave compensation.
Giles Terera, the actor, writer and musician who came to public notice (and an MBE) for his stunning, Olivier Award-winning performance in Lin Manuel Miranda’s rap musical Hamilton, came across the story of Olaudah Equiano and the massacre of 132 Africans from the slave ship Zong, and realised that he had to find a way to bring that story to the stage. Six years later it reaches the stage of Bristol Old Vic.
In the interim, during which Terera and BOV director Tom Morris wrote drafts, conducted workshops and produced a radio version of The Meaning of Zong, so much has changed. In March 2020 most of the world went into the first Covid-19 lockdown. In May 2020 George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police. The following month, in the wake of international protests and after years of to-ing and fro-ing with Bristol City Council, the statue of slaver philanthropist Edward Colston was torn down from its city centre plinth and thrown into the Avon.
So it is fitting that Bristol is the city where the story of the British trial into an insurance claim that kick-started the movement for the abolition of slavery should open. Approaching the story, and underlining its seemingly everlasting topicality from a 21st century perspective, this remarkable play forces its audience to confront their assumptions, prejudices and ignorance – both in lack of knowledge and simply ignoring self-evident reality.
At times spectacular in its sound, colour and design, The Meaning of Zong sweeps the audience from a bookshop in 2022 Bristol to a courtroom in London to a stricken ship in the Caribbean.
The musical director and composer, Malian griot Sidiki Dembele, encircles the cast with the sounds of the rhythmic djembe (even with a bit of audience participation) and the ethereial kora.
The show starts with the ten-strong cast greeting friends and colleagues in the auditorium from the stage, before morphing into their (often multiple) characters. Planks of wood are used as shelves, decking, architecure and weapons. Michael Elcock, as campaigner Ottobah Cugoano, grabs the microphone and raps from time to time. I hope those whose ears are better attuned to the sound could hear the words, sadly lost on me. The final horror of the murder of a cargo of enslaved Africans, to protect a crew from fatal dehydration, is followed by an impassioned dance, a paeon to the spirit of the African people.
Throughout the telling, Terera’s Olaudah Equiano, the freed slave who, with campaigner Granville Sharp (Paul Higgins), forced the legal re-think that sowed the seeds of abolition, is a towering presence. Recent BOV Theatre School graduate Eliza Smith, with Kierea Lester, Bethan Mary-James and Alice Vilanculo, Simon Holland Roberts and Remi King complete the company.
The Meaning of Zong – a question asked by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mansfield during the case – is an illuminating and shattering experience, making imaginative use of music and movement, brilliantly telling a vital story, the impact of which thunders on almost 250 years after the original massacre.
The Meaning of Zong returns to Bristol from Tuesday 26th April to Saturday 7th May, and the tour continues in Edinburgh from 13th to 23rd April and Liverpool from 10th to 14th May.