In November and December 1781, 132 enslaved Africans held captive on the British ship Zong were thrown overboard into the Caribbean sea and murdered. This brutal event and the subsequent London court cases which energised the abolitionist movement are chronicled in The Meaning of Zong, Giles Terera’s debut play.
Originally due to be staged in 2020 and adapted for radio last year, it now receives a richly theatrical first production. Framed by a contemporary setting, the play is resolutely aware of its place in the present moment and how its resonances may differ after the events of the intervening two years. It refrains from didacticism and easy metaphors.
Although the playwright not only shares directing duties with Tom Morris but also stars as abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, it is very much an ensemble piece. Roles and scenery swiftly segue from one scene to the next: talking bookshelves become a crackling fireplace and revolutionary printing presses; slaves become judges.
Performed to music composed and spectacularly played live by Sidiki Dembele, Terera’s nimble script moves to its own rhythm. An extended and exquisitely lyrical second-act monologue might, in a less assured production, feel like it belongs to a different play. Here it feels wholly apposite, performed to devastating effect by Kiera Lester.
There is however a little dissonance between the inventive theatricality of the staging and the sheer brutality of the events at its centre. Despite the fact that little of this violence is depicted on stage, it remains insidiously present. In Jean Chan’s set, the vestiges of empire are everywhere: the rafters that hold up courts of law also form the hulls of the slave trade.
While the legacies of this trade continue to reverberate, so do the victories of those who campaigned against it. And here, in its final minutes, The Power of Zong feels its most triumphant. Devastating and urgent, history unfurls and keeps on moving. It is a profoundly moving moment.