Based on real-life events, The Meaning of Zong tells the story of Olaudah Equiano, or as he was known back then, Gustavus Vassa, who reads the harrowing news about 132 Africans who were thrown overboard from the slave ship, Zong due to water shortages and decides to take action. Joining forces with the anti-slavery campaigner, Granville Sharp, he takes the first steps towards what would lead to the abolition movement in the UK.
In the simplest terms, The Meaning of Zong is one of the best plays I have ever seen. I prepared myself for the heaviness of the topic but impressively, this play did not feel difficult to watch, while in no way undermining the seriousness and the urgency of the topic. It is a beautiful portrayal with a balance of historical accuracy and creative imagining of lost details and figures of the past.
The play is written and directed by the Olivier award winner, Giles Terera who theatre fans would know as Aaron Burr from the original London cast of Hamilton. He also plays the main character, Olaudah. While all theatre fans are aware of his amazing acting, this play also brings him in front of his audience as a masterful playwright and director.
While the writing and acting in this play are top-notch, one of the most important elements of this play is the music. The musical director of the play, Sidiki Dembele composed the music for the play using traditional African instruments and sounds and plays them live on stage with the cast singing. The scenes with the singing of the three brave women of Zong, Ama, Riba and Joyi performed by Kiera Lester, Kezrena James and Bethan Mary James gave me literal goosebumps. It was beautiful while being packed with so many emotions.
The physicality of the performance both bodily and with the innovative use of prompts such as blue ropes as waves adds another dimension to the play that left me in awe. Every single sound, movement, light and word is well-thought and well-positioned.
The occasional direct speech towards the audience and an instance of acting off-stage make the audience part of the play which makes the message of the play more impactful: ‘equal does not mean same. Change is different people leaning to a common cause,’ and ‘why a thing happens is not the question, rather what we do when a thing happens. Not the reason, the response.’
While it teaches about the past, it is also a message for today’s generation to remember our past, see everything happening right now and keep fighting for a better humanity.
The Meaning of Zong has only three more performances at The Barbican Centre (21-21-23 April 2023) which is a shame, in my view, as I would like more people to see this masterful reckoning with the past. So, if you have a chance to catch these performances or any possible future performances that might be announced, make sure you see it. Buy your ticket here.