By Charlotte Goodwin
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The Meaning of Zong—anger but also euphoria in story of slave ship

Bristol Old Vic production The Meaning of Zong is a powerful exploration of slavery, based on the true story of a slave ship massacre
Issue 2801
Three actors stand in traditional dress in a stage set resembling the hull of a ship

Spectacular costumes and set in The Meaning of Zong

The Meaning of Zong is an immersive, emotional play. It throws the audience into the historical yet tender telling of the Zong massacre—when British sailors killed 130 slaves—and the events that followed it.

You can tell that a lot of care has been put into the costume and set design, which the cast uses creatively. Simon Holland-Roberts, Eliza Smith, and Remi King, change between characters and become a part of the set seamlessly.

The music is guaranteed to stick in your head. The use of traditional instruments by the talented musical director Sidiki Dembele really brings the scenes to life, making the play rich with culture.

Despite themes of colonialism and slavery, it makes you want to dance with the actors on stage, who are clearly enjoying themselves.  You really get the sense that they are bringing the memories of Africa to England.

The actors’ chemistry really sells the authenticity, so that the characters genuinely seem to like or hate each other. Performances of sisterhood and survival by Bethan Mary-James, Alice Vilanculo and Kiera Lester are harrowing and beautiful. And the characters of Paul Higgins and Michael Elcock show the complexities between different methods and ideas of abolition.

The ugly truths of slavery make you feel just as shocked and angry as the unified scenes of community and friendship make you feel euphoric.  The play’s debut in the slave port of Bristol reminds you of the city’s history and forces you to confront its reality.

It mentions slaver Edward Colston, whose statue in Bristol—rightfully removed by Black Lives Matter protesters—stood almost right outside the theatre. It’s a reminder of how the legacy of slavery is embedded in Bristol and around the world.

The opening and closing scenes ram this home—with a message about the implicit and explicit racism that’s still part of everyday life.

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