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The Meaning of Zong (Barbican Theatre)

(seen at the afternoon performance on 22nd April 2023)

To deal with first things first, the Zong was a spelling mistake as Dutch was translated into English on the contract to purchase a slave ship in 1781. It should mean “care” in the original language. Of course, the use to which the ship was put is the complete opposite.

On a slave transporting run from Africa to Jamaica, an inexperienced crew with an overloaded ship navigated widely off-course. Running short of water (thanks partly to leaky barrels), the order was given to jettison cargo...

Under English and Welsh law at the time, slaves were just that, cargo no different to the tea, sugar and other items they were forced to produce. Over three dreadful days, 132 people - mostly women and children - were cast overboard to drown.

In 1783 a court case found that the ship’s insurers should pay out £30 per slave lost. An appeal later that year produced new evidence which lead eventually to the end of slavery sanctioned by the British Government far too many years later.

Giles Terera plays Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa), African writer and abolitionist. His 1789 autobiography remains the first and most important piece of British History “slave literature.”

The starting point is a young Black woman arguing for the shelving of the book in the British History rather than Black / Slavery or any other section of Waterstones Bookshop.

Vassa, as Equiano was known before allowing his African name, takes her on a journey back in time to recount the fight to expose the reality of the Zong’s voyage, explored by those who were there – slaves and crew members – and those who believed in abolition and justice before a court.

Sidiki Dembele’s impressive drumming and clapping unite the audience as the play begins, and Jean Chan and Ingrid Mackinnon carry the unity in the set and movement respectively. The company holds boards and handkerchiefs to represent homes, fireplaces, the movement of a ship and courtroom. 

A constant chorus present, this is a colony co-directors Tom Morris and Giles Terera are determined to unite.

The performances are strong as Terera’s character gains the confidence to identify himself and share his tale.

Tristan Sturrock as Granville Sharp, a human rights campaigner ahead of his time is equally compelling, with Simon Holland-Roberts sharing his skill across diverse roles including publisher and deposed governor.

As Ama / Gloria, Kiera Lester has the presence to hold the Barbican’s vast stage alone, while Rona Morison is strong as Secretary Annie Greenwood in the second act.

The story is powerful, overcoming the limitations of the play itself. Far too long, and losing its structure by digressing in the second act, there is either a 90 minute one-act solo piece or a superb musical to found in the material.

Worthy, certainly bringing a vitally important tale to public attention, but this is more a first draft of something which could be refined to create an unforgettable experience.

2 stars.

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