The Meaning of Zong

Giles Teresa’s debut stage play, which he co-directs with Tom Morris (and acts in it too), truly restores the dignity black and brown women so often lose in art and drama, and that of black and brown men too. For such a gut-wrenching subject, it is life and people affirming, celebrating black and brown historical figures fight to be seen as fully human and to free enslaved people.

This nuanced play explores the lives of enslaved people during the Atlantic Trade of the 18th century through the court case of the Zong, as well as those seeking to end the slave trade and those very much involved in keeping it going, and everyone else inbetween.

Composer, multi-talented multi-instrumentalist and on-stage musical director Sidiki Dembele was epic — we began with music. He has an amazing drum, and got us to clap along — it was really fun! Though if you sit as close to the stage as I was, you may think the drum is about to drop on your head!

This very Bristol based drama starts in a bookshop; the shelves have voices; there are Tate and Colston packing cases on the set. A book on the slave trade is in the wrong section — then Olaudah Equiano (Giles Teresa) appears as a guide to the young woman questioning why things should be this way.

We’re now in 18th century London — a thrusting new society of development, fueled by what? The exploited graft of working class men, women and children; the unpaid exploited talents and skills (and wealth) of black and brown people, from colonies abroad, from colonies at home (Ireland and Scotland). And yet in this society of change, on the make, every other nation is trying to do the same — it is also an exciting, thinking, discussing age — an age of coffee shops, literary salons, ‘enlightenment’, of machines, of questioning what it means to be human and ironically thinking about ‘who’ was ‘human’; an age of linked consumption, image and taste.

Olaudah Equiano (or Gustavus Vassa), a free black man and barber, visits Granville Sharp’s (Paul Higgins) home in great agitation, trauma, having read a letter in the newspaper about the despicable case of the Zong, which he (mistakenly it turns out) thinks that Granville Sharp is the author of. But Granville Sharp hasn’t written this letter — he doesn’t know what on earth is being spoken about. However this motivates him to action and it becomes a detective story for a while — Granville Sharp interrogates the great and good to get them to denounce the case; Olaudah Equiano tries to interview sailors who were on the Zong, gradually breaking down the wall of silence to get to the truth of why 132 people or cargo were thrown overboard from the Zong. Was it really because they hit the Doldrums (with no wind to power the ship forward); were running out of water for the crew or because they committed murder of chained up enslaved people to claim insurance?

Imaginatively, we duck backwards and forwards between the Zong (and three women on it), and 1781 London, ultimately the court case headed by Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice (and although strangely missed out here, the great-uncle of Dido Belle, a black woman, living in his household). Is this a fraudulent insurance claim? But Granville Sharpe and Olaudah Equiano aim to use this case about ‘goods’ as a springboard to challenge the validity and inhumanity of the whole slave trade system.

We join 18th century African people in London, as the great man of letters, musician, shopkeeper, enfranchised man (voter!), Ignatius Sancho, is celebrated at his funeral wake. Fascinatingly we see how elements of the free people’s (and former enslaved) culture still remains, even names — author Ottobah Cugoano (or John Stuart). Poignantly Gustavas Vassa cannot remember his pre-enslavement names, he relishes Gustavas Vassa and his freedom, although the radical Ottobah Cugoano encourages him to remember who he was. We also see the horror of the renaming (this also happened to working class servants and in language battles with Welsh people), of taking people’s identity from them, of loss and forgetting.

On the Zong, three women cling together. Having been forced to circle the tree of forgetting before entering the ship, they are determined to resist and remember. The range of viewpoints and voices is remarkable — just as at Sancho’s wake, some black people don’t want to talk of slavery and abolition as it means nothing to them having been born or made free and living their lives, so here there are a range of actions, reactions and even arguments about how to make Jollof rice or the right way to summon spiritual help. It also reminds us all how wrong we’ve been to lump Africa together as one big unit, when there is so much diversity and uniqueness. (But we Europeans couldn’t see that in many cases — just an easy profit and land/resource/people grab). Romanticised to an extent, the women are clothed, not chained down so all they do is lie down topped and tailed (the only movement from forced dancing on deck) or the filth they were forced to endure (in terms of sexual violence or unsanitary conditions), they seek to not only endure but survive.

Why are we in this court case? The owners are seeking their insurance claim. The Zong owners claim that they were running out of water, lost at sea for some time without wind power, drifting. The insurance underwriter claims that they had 420 gallons of water on board when they reached Jamaica. We’re in the 1783 appeal case, with the owners fighting to get their money for ‘goods’ lost. Overtime as Granville Sharpe and Olaudah Equiano investigate they realise that there are lies to be exposed; there was water, they had rain, this is a massacre and huge injustice. Sharp tries and fails to mount a prosecution for murder.

The round of the theatre was brilliantly used as a court case with both Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano interjecting; when Olaudah Equiano is ejected for interrupting proceedings, he rejoices because he is being ordered to leave as a ‘man’, so therefore the Zong cargo are black human beings, men and women, and children, too.

On the Zong, we see events unfold from the women’s point of view. One is able to speak English (as well as other language) and appeals to the sailors to stop murdering them. She is just met with threat and horror. The women are threatened with being thrown overboard next (into shark infested waters) — one is and we are in the waters with her. She manages to cling onto a rope and survive; but we have seen the women fighting amongst themselves, one is sick and pregnant, one is ‘mouthy’, one has withdrawn into herself, yet believing help will come from outside. Extraordinarily her help is Olaudah Equiano, he joins her in the water and encourages this woman, who reminds him of his lost sister, to survive, to live.

Then there is rain, there is water! Magnificently the women are enrobed as proud African women and celebrate. The lamps and water situation were assessed too soon — it was also a con, people were murdered needlessly — the insurance money was all.

In the process, Olaudah Equiano discovers himself — he remembers… He remembers the loss of his sister, the little curious, questioning sister whom he was meant to be protecting, caring for. Cultural brokenness, guilt and shame come through — not only in how they are being treated by white men, but in not being able to return to families, in promises broken, in not being able to get home, to tell their families how they are, in forgetting, in loss of names, language, roles (such as the very female associated hoes given to black men to work with), in feeling responsibility in impossible situations, in the not knowing, in not having stories to tell to young ones, to tell them who they are and where they’ve come from. The image of holding on, enduring, in impossible circumstances, burns through this production — of not letting go.

There is also a hint of women’s emancipation in the character of the female secretary who takes short hand through the Zong case of 1783. No idea if this is true or not, but it was a nice aside to Mary Wollenstonecraft’s works, and to female abolitionists, because it really was the women who mobilised against the slave trade. We see the wider alliances of the time, and how Olaudah Equiano anxiously watches, because this case, for him and so many others, is personal.

We end with celebration and remembering — such a beautiful production of so many painful things. We are reminded that this wasn’t the only massacre, they continue today. The portrayal of faith too really touched me — Olaudah Equiano, (not shown so much here, Ottobah Cugoano), Granville Sharp were all strong Christians. It was beautiful to see the Bible quoted to spur people into actions and deeds; to see prayer on stage (although I wished they’d prayed properly and not by rote!) to see real everyday faith that made a difference to individuals and to society. The play was a huge reminder too that Christians should not tow the establishment line (as the Archbishop did) but be people of action determined by our love for God and love for people — basically, be more Quaker! Even the part in the water, where the young woman rails at God is like the Psalms. Eventually she is reconciled to God and her survival — because there is a rope to cling to. And if God wants her to help herself, then she will still rise. A real change to Christian writers and playwrights to how we use and show and talk about faith in art.

The staging was simple, but extraordinary — with the Westminster Hall roof beams becoming the hold of the Zong; simple costumes to suggest the 18th century and mostly the music and some chairs.

Best of all, you may have a restricted view like mine — at points the action was obscured by Giles Teresa sat on a chair!!!!

It’s such an ensemble piece that it’s hard to single out any one performer; but Michael Elcock was dynamic and dashing as Ottobah Cugoano. I suppose the only weakness in the performance was portraying those involved in the slave trade actively and overseeing it as obviously evil and a bit one note; whilst many certainly were disturbed and disturbing, I suspect we have a more banality of evil situation. We normalised something monstrous so that even upper class women who would consider themselves ‘respectable’ gained an income from it and were happy to get their profits; where children could become a status commodity and collared like pets, and society turned its eyes away to what really happened to the transport and usage of their ‘goods’. The production seemed to be using the real characters actual words, as well as actual words and events from the court case. It makes me want to know more about those who were involved in the Atlantic trade, how the ordinary could behave so barbarously — but also how important it is that the victims of this horror have names, are remembered.

To learn more about the Zong case — https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/zong-massacre-1781/

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