“A dark, heart-wrenching yet hopeful exploration of Britain’s slave trade”
Original West End Hamilton star Giles Terera and his company shook the audience to its core last Thursday night with a workshop performance of his new play “The Meaning of Zong”, the story of how a massacre of innocents on the slave ship Zong in 1781 affected the course of history for the nightmare that was the slave trade and helped bring about it’s eventual abolishment.
The performances on display were simply extraordinary with each cast member fully realising their characters and immersing the audience along with them just by reading from a script. Danny Sapani and Michael Balogun deliver powerful vocal performances with the audience hanging on every word as they describe their suffering and their desire to be free. Akiya Henry as Judge Mansfield also delivers an excellent performance demanding order in the courtroom with astounding authority. Enyi Okoronkwo as Olaudah Equiano delivers a more reserved performance but is by no means less effective, delivering powerful speeches on the status of his community, effectively conveying the pain of seeing his family suffer whilst he himself is free.
Choral vocal accompaniment is used very effectively to emphasise lines, create a busy atmosphere and build suspense, my personal favourite moment of the play is when Okoronkwo delivers the chilling repetition of “Ship sails to Africa, buys humans. Ship sails to Caribbean, sells humans, buys sugar. Ship sails back to Britain, sells sugar.” In which the entire cast slowly joins Okoronkwo in this repeated goosebump-inducing dialogue which creates the effect of the souls of the deceased rising up with him to tell their harrowing tales.
The writing deserves endless praise, Giles Terera has constructed a story that expertly covers the harrowing experience that the slaves experienced without resorting to excessive violence or becoming too depressing. There is an underlying tone of hope present in the production with each character determined to see their conditions improve and the world to become a better place. Whether the scene be a courtroom argument or a slave hanging for dear life off of the edge of a ship, there is always hope found, even in the darkest of times.
The cast’s mesmerising performances combined with the stellar writing caused me and the rest of audience to become so emotionally captivated that within minutes we forgot that the play was only being read from scripts with minimal staging. “The Meaning of Zong” is to be staged fully in 2019 and I personally cannot wait to see it again. Mr Terera has created a masterpiece of a play which everyone should see as soon as they can.