Alice Vilanculo

The Meaning of Zong

20/04/22

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The Meaning of Zong opens in a contemporary UK bookshop, where Gloria, a young black woman (Kiera Lester), attempts to tell the white staff that they have misclassified a book about the Atlantic slave trade. They’re mystified. “It’s in African history,” they tell her. “But it’s British history,” she replies. They don’t understand, prevaricating with platitudes about ‘being allies,’ while vaguely insinuating that such decisions are taken by a distant boss. Gloria’s frustrated, but help is at hand, in the form of Olaudah Equiano (Giles Terera), a former slave, who steps out of the history book to tell Gloria (and us) his tale.

And the tale he tells is truly shocking: a shame-inducing account of an event so appalling it ought to be common knowledge. That it is not speaks volumes, illuminating the importance of that opening scene. If we don’t even acknowledge our history, how can we hope to learn from it?

In 1793, Oloudah tells Gloria, there was a massacre on board a British slave ship called The Zong. 132 slaves were thrown into the sea and left to drown, jettisoned because – so it was claimed – there was a shortage of drinking water, and so their killing was a “necessary” act. Not only did they commit murder, the ship’s owners also put in an insurance claim for the loss of their “property.” The insurers disputed the claim, of course (because some things are immutable), but not before Oloudah chanced upon the case, and joined forces with anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp (Paul Higgins) and shorthand secretary Annie Greenwood (Eliza Smith) to ensure the case was brought to public attention. The slave owners’ blatant dismissal of human beings as “cargo” caused outrage, and proved to be a significant step on the path towards abolition.

Although it’s an ensemble piece, this is very much Terera’s project: as well as playing Oloudah, he is both writer and co-director (along with Tom Morris). It’s a spectacular achievement, making bold social and political points, while still being playful and overtly theatrical. He pulls no punches and yet we’re on his side; he never lets us off the hook, but we feel galvanised rather than defensive.

We never witness the massacre. Instead, we are shown the legal struggle Oloudah and Granville mount to have the court’s ruling overturned. Instead, we are shown the strength of three female slaves (Lester, Bethan Mary-James and Alice Vilanculo), recounting the story of Anansi, the spider god, calling on the spirits to save them. And one of them – unnamed – is saved, clinging to a rope, reaching through the years to become Terera’s inspiration for this devastating reminder of our collective guilt.

Jean Chan’s set is a thing of beauty, reinforcing the notion that everything is connected, that we can’t escape our past just by shutting our ears and hiding things away. Thus Westminster Hall’s magnificent wooden ceiling is also the slave ship’s hull; the judge’s bench is also a Waterstones bookshelf. The furniture we sit on, the cutlery we use, the sugar we sprinkle in our tea: these things are all linked to slavery, Oloudah tells Gloria – and the truth will out.

Sidiki Dembele’s onstage drumming is both powerful and provocative, first bringing the audience together then silencing us with its force. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a story that demands to be heard.

The Meaning of Zong has already finished its run at the Bristol Old Vic, and only has a few more days here in Edinburgh before it moves on to Liverpool. It’s worth seeking out. We mustn’t let this story fade away. It belongs in the bookshop’s window, not relegated to a forgotten shelf.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield