Posts Tagged ‘Sidiki Dembele’

Actor Giles Terera chose the subject for his playwrighting debut well. Something he clearly believes passionately about, something too few people know about, and a significant moment in the abolition movement. He also chose well in partnering with master storyteller Tom Morris as co-director.

The Zong was a ship with 133 slaves on board, purchased in Africa and sailed to the West Indies. They run low on food and water and the crew decide to throw the slaves, including women and children, who went first, overboard as ‘a matter of necessity’, they were insured cargo after all, not people.

We start in the present day in Waterstones where a customer challenges the placing of books about slavery as African history, insisting it’s British history. Then we flash back to the late 18th Century, soon after the tragedy, when Gustavus Vassa / Olaudah Equiano, former slave but now a free man, tries to bring the case of the Zong to the attention of anti-slavery champion Granville Sharp. A number of court cases follow, challenging ‘the necessity’ argument, crucial to the insurance claims, but the establishment fought on, until testimony from a crew member suggested the last group were not ‘of necessity’, supporting the anti-slavery cause.

In a very moving epilogue we learn that compensation payments to slavers (not the enslaved) constituted the greatest taxpayer bailouts until the 2008 crash, and how this case set the scene for most human rights cases that followed, back in Waterstones, placing the books on the appropriate shelves.

Terera plays Vassa / Equiano himself and is surrounded by a fine supporting cast. The use of West African music, played live by Sidiki Dembele, is inspired. The staging is simple but there are some spectacular moments, most notably when the courthouse transforms into the ship.

It’s an important story to bring to our attention, and it’s a fine piece of storytelling, with a surprising amount of humour, yet rousing and moving. Sadly over, for now, after it’s short run at the Barbican. It would be good to see it reach a wider audience.

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