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Reviews: Black Matter/ The Meaning of Zong

Reviews: Black Matter/ The Meaning of Zong

Reviews: Black Matter/ The Meaning of Zong cover photo on Stagedoor
It’s definitely been Giles Terera’s week. The former Olivier-winning Hamilton star, who originated the role of Aaron Burr in the UK premiere of Lin Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical, has been demonstrating that he is a man of many different talents.

On the Brasserie Zedel website you can access Black Matter, a gorgeous song cycle filmed in lockdown the empty Crazy Coqs cabaret bar, not far from his Soho home. On Sunday night his debut play, The Meaning of Zong, created with Bristol Old Vic and available from their website, was broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Both are terrific: gripping, sometimes painfully beautiful, and full of anger and complexity as they ask questions about the past and how we move forward as a society hand in hand with the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s particularly fascinating to experience both as I did on the same day because they constantly prowl and bounce off of each other.

That’s despite the fact one is a man singing songs in an art déco boudoir, and the other tells the horrific story of the Africans aboard the slave ship, the Zong, 132 of whom were thrown overboard in 1781 when the ship lost its way and ran short of water. The owners then tried to claim on their insurance on the grounds that it included a clause that said ditched cargo could be claimed for if the act protected the rest of the goods on board. In this case the cargo was men, women and a child.

With Black Matter the title indicates the scope of Terera’s musical odyssey, which is musically wide-ranging, and has the knack of being easy to listen to but also simultaneously hard-hitting. It’s sly stuff beginning with the apparent jauntiness of the refrain 'London Bridge is Falling Down' that quickly becomes about decades of injustice, from Stephen Lawrence to the hostile environment and deportations.

Giles Terera in Black Matter.

Terera has an eye for observation and an actor’s ability to tell a story, whether its about a moment last summer in which two young black men were immediately perceived by the police as the perpetrators of a thrown glass of wine, which in fact had been thrown by a white woman, to a direct and heartfelt tribute to his sisters and all black women and all they have to survive. There are love songs—the gorgeous Charing Cross Road—and protest songs, and the whole thing comes together in a satisfying dramatic arc. The space may be empty but it’s filled with ghosts.

Many ghosts haunt The Meaning of Zong which Terera not only wrote but in which he plays Olaudah Equiano, the former slave who brought his freedom and who brings the case of the Zong to the attention of abolitionist Granville Sharp (Samuel West).

Dense, bustling with life and haunted by those whose names have been lost under the sea or on the plantations of Jamaica and America, this is a play that holds a country and its own version of history to account. Because who is responsible? The captain? The shipowner? The man who makes the shackles for the ship? Anyone who lifts a spoonful of sugar to sweeten their tea?

It’s all connected and with a light touch and a fiery passion Terera links what happened then to what is happening now. When Equiano and Granville highlighted the case of the Zong they wanted to make “the whole country shudder.” Terera’s play continues that work by keeping the story alive.

You can watch Black Matter until 31 Mar, more info here.

You listen to Meaning of Zong on BBC Radio 3 until 20 Apr, more info here.

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Written by

Lyn Gardner

New tips and reviews every week. If you're looking for innovative theatre, you've come to the right place.
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