An African Cargo @ Greenwich Theatre

Say It Loud

★ ★ ★ ★

In the spirit of Black History Month, An African Cargo, by Margaret Busby, was staged at Greenwich Theatre to a small and cosy audience. Set in 1783, a slave ship called ‘Zong’ heading for Jamaica with an inexperienced Captain, and approximately four hundred African slaves on-board runs into trouble when they lose their way. Water shortage, sick slaves and crew men, all become a formula for disaster, and the Captain decides to have a large number of the slaves thrown overboard.

A claim is made on the Insurance Company (as each slave has a demeaning price of thirty pounds placed on their heads) for loss of ‘cargo’. We are then taken through a courtroom battle as the Insurance Company battles to avoid a paying out any money, claiming the African slaves cannot be classed as ‘cargo’, but actual human beings. This claim will later mark the beginning of the abolition of the Slave Trade Act.

The action is set in the courtroom and traditional African slave songs, sung by the cast, establish and reinforce the shocking and devastating conditions experienced by those held captive on ‘Zong.’ Statements such as ‘each man had less room than a man in a coffin’, and slaves being compared to horses, shock the audience as the tragedy unravels before them.
A simple set is all that was required as the cast delivers a brilliant performance. Julie Hewlett is excellent in her role as Dido Belle, a black girl being raised by the white Lord Mansfield, who is also the judge presiding over the case. Belle is not afraid to voice her thoughts on the injustice and horror of the case as it unfolds. She questions the audience in the same vein as the plaintiff and defendants, in an unflinching, raw and thought-provoking scene.

Other vibrant performances come from Rolan Bell and Angela M Caesar, solicitors for the insurance company, who, in an ironic manner, bring some humour to the play which the audience responded extremely well to. The use of slow-motion movement when a particular character was out of focus and a projector screen to update the audience with the cruel facts that are now documented regarding the slave trade proved to be a clever way of relaying the story.

The play concludes with a moving rendition of old Negro Spirituals, with lines such as ‘steer our way to freedom, steer our way home’ ringing out at the audience. The emotion felt by the cast and audience during this finale is too great for words, as there was hardly a dry eye in the house.

Knowing that so many Africans perished cruelly that fateful day and their bones now lie in one big graveyard at the bottom of the sea, and the realisation that they never steered their way to freedom makes you question why this case did not bring a stop to the Slave Trade. However, it managed to turn the wheels and for others and myself alike, the understanding that our freedom dates back to this moment in history makes this tragic story worth the celebration.

By Colette Lebrasse
Say It Loud

Reviews, 1 September 2007