The Meaning of Zong @ Barbican Review

On paper, a promising night out at the Barbican, one of my favourite East London venues whose concrete wings stretch out into the City of London. The Meaning of Zong promises to tell an incredible tale based on a significant and buried piece of British history. Weeks before the King’s coronation there was an opportunity here to do something bold and spectacular, but it fell short in terms of ambition, execution, and critical commentary.

Courtesy of Jemima Yong.

First play by Giles Terera predominantly follows two narratives which is threaded through the piece. The first based on the historical figure, freed slave and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) battling the courts, and a second imagines the stories of Ama, Riba and Joyi, three West African women on board the British slave ship Zong.Unfortunately, the two fail to meet in narrative harmony, and is curiously framed by a visit to Waterstones in the present day.

Terara’s performance as Oluadah Equiano is strong and believable. We are fortunate to know this famous Black Briton from the late eighteen century because of his book ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African’. Having encountered the almost mythical figure in The Interesting Narrative and recently in mainstream discourse by David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History, I was thrilled to see this adaptation bring Equiano on to the stage. Terara plays Equiano with controlled passion as he navigates his life as a freed slave in the heart of the British Empire. Terara’s Equiano tells us the emotional story of events which are now thankfully well documented. We see in this play the mental toll that comes along with displacement in a country that is debating whether black bodies can be considered as cargo. We see Equiano’s cool and collected demeanour come apart in his dreams, haunted by a calling of his ancestral home as he struggles to remember his African name, this moment of revelation towards the end waspowerfully delivered by Terera.

By Tasnim Siddiqa Amin

Follow Tasnim on Instagram: @tasnimsiddiqaamin, Twitter: t_siddiqa_amin & WordPress.

The Meaning of Zong was shown from Thursday 20th until Sunday 23rd April 2023 at the Barbican. To find out more about the production, visit here…

Written by Theatrefullstop