The Meaning of Zong, written and directed by Giles Terera, is an extraordinary reflection on slavery, its effect on society then and now, and today’s climate of performative allyship, protest and privilege, and their role in today’s racism. Incorporating music, dance and unique theatrical techniques, along with traditional stagecraft and storytelling, to create a mesmerising show which shines a light into a bleak and often sanitised history, and creates a spark of hope that, while we aren’t there yet, we are moving towards a better world.
Before the play opens, some members of the cast greet audience members, with each of them looking excited and hopeful. This is followed by the onstage Musical Director, Sidiki Dembele performing a brilliant drum solo with audience participatory clapping. This creates a festival atmosphere which crashes to a halt when we are transported to a bookshop preparing to close. The staff become frustrated when Gloria (Kiera Lester) makes a complaint about a book on the history of slavery being in the African History section instead of British History, when it was the British who imposed slavery on Africa.
The action cleverly flashes back to 1783 where Olaudah Equiano (Terera) tells Gloria his story and helps her to reflect on her own situation in the modern world. Paul Higgins playing Granville Sharp, adds an interesting slant to the story as the passionate abolitionist who hasn’t quite reached the point of thinking in terms of equality. Higgins’ performance is brilliant, with a decent level of passion and anger as tries to make the world understand the evils of slavery, while also subtly illustrating his own prejudices.
Remi King is excellent as Kelsall, the angry second mate on the eponymous Zong, a slave ship which threw over a hundred slaves into the sea due to a water shortage, claiming for the loss of their “property” on the insurance after. King’s dual role as Pigott in the Court case regarding insurance claim is a clever use of double roles which allows for reflection on the different roles people in society play.
Simon Holland-Roberts, plays several roles and each portrayal is very strong. His ability to transform his body language and accent is excellent. Bethan Mary-James, playing Joyi, a captive on the Zong ship, and Lord Mansfield, the face of British law, is excellent in both her dance and musical performances and as the strict judge who doesn’t want to discuss the case further than the bare minimum insurance claim.
The ingenious set makes use of crates and planks of wood to create numerous places and situations. The creation of the United Kingdom’s Coat of Arms by Lester and Holland-Roberts is brilliant, creating an honest portrayal of the image while gently poking fun at the institutions responsible for discrimination. The scene portraying under the sea is also excellent and cleverly uses movement to represent hopelessness and the crashing waves.
The use of flashback, notoriously difficult to manage onstage, is exceptional and never feels forced or unnatural. Terera’s portrayal of trauma during flashbacks with a brilliant combination of stillness and evident anxiety is an accurate and respectful portrayal of post traumatic stress disorder.
The blocking of the piece is unique which makes many aspects of the play interesting, but does mean that the cast do need to pay extra attention to some elements of their projection as some of the lines delivered away from the audience and are difficult to hear.
The use of song and dance in the piece acts a symbol of self-identity, family and home. The use of music to hold onto a sense of self during hopeless and distressing situations is one which anyone can relate to and adds some mesmerising elements to the play.
The play is of course particularly relevant to a Liverpool audience and references to the city and its role in the slave trade made the atmosphere in the theatre palpable. The role of people knowing that things need to change but not actually wanting to take the action themselves to do anything about it, is very thought provoking, particularly in light of the current climate.
The Meaning of Zong is a brilliant piece of theatre which gives a face to the huge numbers of people who were hurt and killed by the transatlantic slave trade. A good reminder that the key to improving ourselves and our society is to tell the stories and keep learning from them, rather than demanding perfection from ourselves, this thought provoking play will leave you with plenty to reflect on and consider, and more stories to tell as our society grows and progresses.
Playing until 14th May, https://www.everymanplayhouse.com/whats-on/the-meaning-of-zong
Reviewer: Donna M Day
Reviewed: 10th May 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★