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Review: The Meaning of Zong at Liverpool Playhouse ****1/2

Over the last two decades Liverpool has started to make a conscious effort to confront its slave trading past – from the city council’s formal apology in 1999 to the opening of the (soon to be expanded) International Slavery Museum in 2007 to the annual Slavery Remembrance Day and ongoing programmes of research and education.

Education of course is key. So it would be interesting to see if you stopped 100 people in the street today, how many of them would recognise the name ‘Zong’.

It’s a name which takes centre stage in Giles Terera’s powerful, poetic and passionate new play, nominally a court room drama, based on fact and where cold legality is pitched against morality and humanity.

But Terera has also woven the actions of 240 years ago with the attitudes of here and now, entwining the result with the dreamlike murmur of ancestral voices and an atmospheric vocal and percussive soundscape to create a celebration of the human spirit even in the face of great adversity.

It makes for a mesmerising, if tough but necessary watch.

And where more fitting to watch it than in the port from where the Zong (a prize captured from the Dutch-turned-slave ship) sailed at the start of what became the most shameful of all the many shameful acts committed by those engaged in the trade in enslaved African peoples?

Above: Kiera Lester (Ama). Top: Michael Elcock as Ottobah Cugoano and Giles Terera as Olaudah Equiano.

The Zong’s notorious 1781 voyage – from the Mersey to the Gold Coast to the Black River in Jamaica – was beset by illness, human error and financial greed with the ship, recklessly overladen with human cargo, taking 113 days to complete the ‘middle passage’ and navigational mistakes leaving it hopelessly off course and running low on water.

The crew’s solution was to jettison some of that ‘cargo’ to save the rest, and over the course of three days, 122 men, women and children were thrown overboard. Another 10 feared being shackled and drowned and chose to jump.

Added to the dozens of enslaved people who had already died on the voyage, it meant that of the 440 who were embarked in Africa, only 208 survived the passage. That’s a fatality rate of 53%.

The horrific case of the Zong only came to light when the Liverpool syndicate that owned it, led by prolific slave trader William Gregson, made an insurance claim for the loss of their human cargo and it came to the attention of the famous freeman and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano (Terera) and anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp (Paul Higgins).

Above: Paul Higgins as Granville Sharp

Olivier Award-winning Terera, who also directs, is perhaps best known for his role as Aaron Burr in Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, and you can sense something of the hand of Hamilton in The Meaning of Zong’s energetic staging, with frock-coated drama meeting contemporary language and beatboxing.

Visually it’s at times very striking, particularly designer Jean Chan’s realisation of Westminster Hall’s magnificent medieval hammer beam roof which then in turn becomes the hull of the ill-fated Zong, where a trio of women – Ama, Joyi and Riba – huddle in fragile sisterhood.

Meanwhile Terera’s Equiano is on a journey of his own as circumstances lead him to confront the traumatic past he has locked away in the recesses of his memory, while their burgeoning relationship/friendship also forces Sharp to look inside himself at his own motives and ingrained attitudes.

It’s strong and sharply resonant stuff, delivered with intelligence and inventiveness. So much so that its parting message about the Zong’s key role in the history of human rights campaigning, delivered directly to the audience by the whole cast, feels a somewhat heavy-handed way to end.


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