TOAt a pivotal point in his career, Giles Terera realized that the parts being offered to him as an actor of color were not necessarily the ones he was interested in playing. “They went up to a certain level but I had other stories I wanted to tell, other lives I wanted to investigate,” he says.
So he began combining his acting roles – most famously as Aaron Burr in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, which earned him an Olivier award – with making music, films and writing. “I remember, in Hamilton, talking to Lin about that and he had the same thing: If the stories you want to tell aren’t being told, tell them yourself.”
Terera is busy doing just that with his latest project: a play about a truly wretched moment in Britain’s slave-trading history which involved the killing of more than 130 enslaved Africans in 1781 on a ship called the Zong, owned by a Liverpool-based syndicate . The massacre occurred after the crew realized they were short of water; the company, having taken out insurance on the lives of the enslaved people, could make a claim when the ship returned home.
Terera, 45, has not only written The Meaning of Zong, to be staged at the Bristol Old Vic, but is also starring in it and co-directing with Tom Morris. When we talk on Zoom, he is sipping tea at the end of a day of rehearsals. As the light leaks out of the room, he talks animatedly about the roots of the play. It was due to be staged before the pandemic and last year became to BBC audio drama starring Terera, Samuel West and Michael Balogun.
Its inception came in 2014 when he overheard a snatch of conversation as he walked past the actor Anni Domingo. “It was an important moment in my life. As I passed her [at a gathering], I heard the words: ‘… the ship where they threw the Africans into the sea and the insurance…’ A bell went off. I asked her what she was talking about and I wanted to find out more. I felt it was shameful I didn’t know about this event.”
He looked into the lives of anti-slavery campaigners Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano, read transcriptions of the court cases over the Zong and looked through archives at the National Maritime Museum. A detail from one document struck him: the record of a survivor who showed an extraordinary will to live. “A person who was thrown overboard managed to grab on to a rope and pull themselves back up on to the ship. When I read that I immediately thought ‘OK, this needs to be a piece of theatre.’ That’s where I started, with that character, because that was someone I wanted to see a play about.”
Having written The Meaning of Zong, he began plugging away at theaters to stage it. “I’ve tried to take this story to different places, different theaters, and there hasn’t always been the appetite for it. That’s also what this play is about – three people, Sharp, Equiano and their shorthand secretary, Annie Greenwood, desperately trying to get their stories heard. They meet with massive resistance and I have felt some of that in trying to convince others [to stage the play]. We have a huge, huge issue with coming to terms with and acknowledging our past.”
What bubbled up for him as he researched it? anger? sadness? injustice? “All of the above, but also a massive joy at the strength of the people that I come from. From the moment someone’s captured, they are improvising, having to work out ‘How are we going to survive?’ ‘How are we going to protect each other?’ ‘How am I going to get back home?’ There’s an ingenuity there that staggered me at every moment.”
The actions of Sharp, Equiano and Greenwood inspired him too. “I thought Christ, if these three people could have done what they did in the face of massive establishment opposition, what’s my version of that? What is happening in my society which I have to do something about? What you see in Zong is that the power of one person is massive.”
What does he think of the concept of allyship on social media and of online activism? Is change something we enact in front of our laptops now? “Since the Arab spring, we’ve been led to believe in the power of what we can do just by being online. But when you look at the government trying to crack down on what it actually means to protest or use your voice, it becomes even more important that we don’t just tweet about it, that we are prepared to get up and do something.”
Terera started out wanting to be a musician before enrolling at Mountview drama school to train as an actor. He wanted, initially, to work in films because he had absorbed his mother’s love of movies growing up. But “the parts that you tend to be up for in film don’t necessarily interest me either,” he says.
Born in Hackney, east London, he was brought up in Stevenage, Hertfordshire. His Zimbabwean father deél died when Giles was four months old and his mother de ella, a nurse who had come to Britain at the end of the Windrush generation in the 1960s, raised Terera and his sisters de ella (including his de ella twin de her) on her own. She died in 2007 and her death de ella was a galvanizing moment, when Terera realized: “You need to make the most of the time that you have. She made sacrifices. I knew what she had gone through so, for me, now, these are the stories I want to tell and I’m going to tell them.”
Until the summer of 2016, I didn’t know anything about Hamilton. “I knew I was going to audition for it and my agent had said ‘Listen to this show [on the original cast recording]’. I hadn’t heard any of the hype – although at that point the Tony awards had happened, the cast had just been to the White House and they had filmed the show for what became the movie. When I listened to the CD, I immediately felt that Aaron Burr was a person whose story I had to tell.”
Has his relationship to the show changed since the discussions on its lead characters’ associations with slavery? “As soon as I started researching Burr and that period, I was very aware of who these men were and their relationship to slavery. But what I loved about the musical was the casting choices about who was going to tell the story. It had an active sense, I felt, of reclaiming this period and this narrative. When I saw it on Broadway, the thing I was most moved by was that there were people who looked like me, up on stage, telling the story of men and women who are complex and complicated and layered.
“By the time it got over here, it had become a pop culture phenomenon and I did wonder if it would have the same resonance. But then we’d go out to perform and when I’d see people of color in the audience, I could see from their faces how much it meant to them to be looking at people who looked like them on stage.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism