The Meaning of Zong tells the story of the 1781 massacre on the titular slave ship, and how the attempts to bring it to public attention bolstered the abolition movement. Written by and starring Giles Terera, it was originally conceived as a stage play before being adapted for radio as part of the BBC’s Lights Up programme. The play tackles questions around identity, activism, and action, and throughout makes a case for how stories can be an instrument of change. Incited by the effect that reading a newspaper story about the massacre had on Olaudah Equiano (Terera), a former slave and barber, the characters’ goals rest on a belief that the story would make the whole country shudder if it gained wider attention, and turn the tide of public opinion.
The play begins with a framing device in which a woman challenges the categorisation system of a modern bookshop: books about slavery are placed under Africa rather than British History. It is immediately clear that while this show is about the importance of stories, it is also about the complexities and constrictions that come with the different ways stories can be told and presented, and how hegemonic structures can twist and obscure narratives for their own ends. The stories range from those women on the Zong shared among each other for comfort, to the conflicting narratives of the crew presented in court, to the newspaper article that first catches Equiano’s eye. The play avoids simplicity in its exploration of how different forms have their own problems and benefits – at times verbal storytelling is shown as more dynamic, and able to escape the constrictions and mis-categorisations of books, but at others the wider reach and immutability of the written word is lauded, such as the newspaper that abolitionist Ottobah Coguano plans to found, or the importance of an accurate transcription of the Zong case.
The narrative skips backwards and forwards between the bookshop, the Zong, and the London court case. There is a fluidity to the storytelling that allows characters to fulfil different roles across time and space. Olaudah Equiano simultaneously haunts and is haunted by Ama, one of the women on the Zong, as well as the woman in the bookshop (both played by Moronke Akinola). They both give and receive encouragement and wisdom and incitement to act. This helps the play to avoid a common pitfall of historical dramas – shrinking a vast struggle to the work of a single individual, or a small group. While Equiano is clearly at the centre of the narrative, the sense of connection with others, of being a conduit for action, helps create a sense that this is not just his story.
This linking of characters is also part of the way the play pushes back against the ‘white saviour’ narratives prevalent in stories about abolition. The slaves aboard the Zong aren’t passive, off-screen victims, but nuanced and compelling characters who, through Ama, are active in the way the story is told. And the flaws of the white characters helping Equiano are clearly shown; abolitionist Granville Sharp is obviously dedicated to his cause, but also an egotist who sees black people mainly as victims to be saved; the transcriptionist Miss Greenwood initially wishes to not think about the horrors of slavery, and calls Sharp as bad as the slavers themselves for forcing her to confront those truths. And while the success of the insurers in their case against the owners of the Zong helps the abolitionists, it’s clear there is no ‘good guy’ in this legal drama – from the judge, to the defendant, to the prosecution, to the lawyers, all are slave owners.
The play’s adaptation for radio from the stage is mostly successful. There are a couple of points where the audio only format makes it harder to follow – especially during the courtroom scenes, where the interjections of the observers are often interspersed with the lawyers arguments – but for the most part the form is used very effectively. Jon Nicholls’ sound design is evocative; the muffled clink of chains or slash of a knife is often more effective at creating a tense, uncomfortable atmosphere for the fact we can’t see what’s happening.
The play is a fascinating and nuanced exploration of an oft overlooked part of British history. Perhaps its biggest strength is that it balances its focus on the past with an eye always on the future. The adage repeated throughout – ‘not the reason, the response’ – encourages action and progress, and the play links historical struggles with current fights for human rights.
The Meaning of Zong is available to listen to until 20 April. More info here.