Based on the life of Olaudah Equiano, a leading figure in the British abolitionist movement, The Meaning of Zong represents the debut of Olivier Award winning actor Giles Terera as a writer. Joining forces with co-director Tom Morris, the pair have crafted a powerful piece of theatre that ultimately struggles under the weight of its own ambition.
In 1783, Equiano, still going by Gustavus Vassa, reads the story of the massacre aboard the slave ship Zong where 132 African slaves were thrown overboard. Horrified, he reaches out to anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp, and the pair work together to condemn these actions and ensure justice is served for the 132 despite being considered property rather than human beings. In the process, Equiano must confront his own past and accept his true self.
There is much to like about The Meaning of Zong. It is marvellously staged, utilising simple boards and boxes adorned with the names of slave owners to create a verisimilitude of environments despite the sparseness. There are also strong performances from much of the cast. In particular, Terera himself is excellent as Equiano, truly capturing a great deal of pain and emotion. Likewise, Michael Elcock often steals the show whenever he is onstage as enthusiastic activist Ottobah Cugoano.
Musical director Sidiki Dembele’s musical accompaniment adds much to the performance too, utilising musical instruments integral to West African storytelling to enhance and underlie what is happening on stage. This also translates to poetical elements which blend seamlessly with the more dramatic elements.
It’s clear Terera has drawn inspiration from his time starring in Hamilton for this through his use of introductions and narrations made by the likes of Elcock. While enjoyable, they are used too sparingly and feel like an after-thought, or an idea decidedly abandoned for the second act’s radically different tone.
This shift in tone is significant, too. Where the first act provides context to both the time period, characters, and Equiano’s own struggle for identity as he and Sharp look into the Zong massacre, the second act unfolds as a courtroom drama. There is certainly grandeur afforded to this despite the sparse set; with arched beams descending from the rafters and an image of blind justice projected upon the backdrop, there are elements within that feel like padding.
Several scenes follow three women aboard the Zong – Ama, Joyi, and Riba – which helps to humanise and give voice to those brutally murdered. While these scenes are incredibly important, elements from within them feel at times superfluous and muddled. One sequence in particular – when the women are drowning – unfortunately feels less emotive and more drama school workshop than is perhaps intended.
It’s clear Terera has lofty ambitions for conveying this dark yet important moment of British history that is often forgotten about today. Sadly, by attempting to cram as much as he has into it, The Meaning of Zong ultimately loses some of its powerful meaning, becoming unfocused and muddled in the process.