Yarico: a New Musical about Slavery

flowerI’m working on a longer version of this blog post for a scholarly publication – more details to come!

A new musical which explores slavery and its legacy has just announced that its opening run in London will be extended. Yarico tells the story of a beautiful Amerindian woman whose English lover betrays her and sells her into slavery. But the tale is actually centuries old, and has undergone several transformations.

The original account of Yarico dates from 1657 and was recounted in The True and Exact History of Barbados by Richard Ligon. Despite the work’s title, it is impossible to ascertain whether Ligon’s story was indeed ‘true’, but it struck a chord in the popular imagination. The story was retold in 1711 by Richard Steele in issue number 11 of the Spectator, and Steele’s article reached a wide audience on both sides of the Atlantic.

The cultural significance of the story was such that it was turned into an 18th Century comic opera Inkle and Yarico, by George Colman, which was performed first at the Haymarket theatre in 1787. The foreword to Colman’s opera draws attention to its significance for the anti-slavery movement, suggesting that the drama “might remove from Mr Wilberforce his aversion to theatrical exhibitions […] it is one of those plays which is independent of time, of place, of circumstance, for its value.” Indeed, as the programme for the 2015 musical reminds us, the story was an important cultural tool in promoting the abolition of slavery.

Yarico has garnered several column inches focusing not only on the musical, but also on its producers, Jodie Kidd, and her father John. The model was raised in Barbados, and there is considerable Barbadian involvement in the project to rediscover Yarico.

Slavery and Resistance

Yarico explores the themes of love, sex, gender roles, money, enslavement and colonial exploitation. In the first act, Yarico saves Inkle’s life when her village votes to put him to death. The comedic potential of the relationships between the female Amerindians Yarico and Nono, and the male Europeans Inkle and Cicero, is fully developed, just as in Colman’s 1787 opera. In scenes straight out of a teen drama, the nascent couples flirt, blush and wonder how to communicate with each other, and turn to their best friends to vent their feelings of attraction, angst and frustration. This goes a long way to ‘de-exoticisng’ the plot, making the characters familiar and likeable, and underscoring the timelessness of love and attraction.

From the end of the first act, however, when Yarico is sold at a slave market, the musical explores more serious themes in an uncompromising manner. From this point onwards, it walks a tightrope between depicting the horror of slavery, and showing the flame of resistance. This recalls the Caribbean author Daniel Maximin’s famous comment that “the story of slavery is also the story of the resistance of slavery”. And resistance, and the hope that springs from it, provide a counterbalance to the tragic treatment of Yarico after Inkle’s betrayal. In her professional debut, newcomer Liberty Buckland’s assured and nuanced performance ensures that Yarico retains her dignity throughout her enslavement. Nonetheless, slavery’s violence and inhumanity become prominent as the musical develops.

True to the spirit of resistance running throughout, the musical’s climax is a slave revolt, which is a modern addition not present in previous versions. This ending offers Inkle a chance of redemption, as (spoiler alert) his final act of bravery allows Yarico to escape from Barbados with their son.

Some Thoughts on the 2015 Adaptation

dice yaricoIn Yarico, Inkle atones for his previous life of vice as a gambling addict: the addiction which, in the musical, leads to Yarico’s enslavement.

This is another nod to Colman, although his opera’s treatment of the addiction of humans to money contains a more blatant condemnation of the opportunities offered by colonialism for capitalists to accumulate wealth and climb the social ladder.

In Colman’s 1787 Inkle and Yarico, Inkle must choose between his love for Yarico and an arranged marriage with Narcissa, the daughter of Sir Christopher Curry, a union which will guarantee Inckle status and riches.

Colman satirizes Inkle’s relentless pursuit of wealth. When Inkle infoms Yarico that he is leaving her, he comments that the cultural differences between them are too great: rather than being born to hunt for wild animals and live off the land, Ickle tells a dismayed Yarico that “we Christians, girl, hunt money”. Coleman also engineers a redemptive moment for Inkle: at the opera’s climax, Sir Christopher, who has learned of Inckle’s cowardice and betrayal of Yarico, demands that Inckle explain himself. At this, Inckle repeats his father’s mantra that “men now lived for themselves”, and that the age of charity and compassion had given way to one of self-interest and profit. Under duress from Sir Christopher – Narcissa has fortunately found a more suitable match in the meantime – Inckle repents and agrees to commit to Yarico, and a happy ending ensues as the two are wed.

Although the 2015 musical does not grant Yarico this happy ending, the gambling sub-plot similarly underscores Inkle’s addiction to the pursuit of wealth. This does, however, mean that the theme of social mobility through colonial speculation is not highlighted in the way it was in 1787. In the musical, Inkle’s moment of gambling weakness is a personal, irresponsible flaw, rather than a cold, calculated decision to sell the woman he loves into slavery to get her out of the way because a woman with better social prospects is within his grasp. As such, the new adaptation loses some of the searing social commentary of Colman’s opera. Nonetheless, speculating on the colonies is likened to gambling at several points, and the wider point – on the immorality of the ruthless pursuit of profit – prevails.

Perhaps the most significant feature of the modernised Yarico is the female lead’s agency in her own survival. Previous Yaricos were the stereotypical beautiful, innocent victims of male deception and scheming – the rhyming potential of Yarico and woe was a gift to poets – but in 2015, Yarico is supported by the wider slave community and fights her way to freedom, a powerful message.

This is just the beginning of the Yarico adventure, and the project will be one to watch for all those with an interest in dramatic arts and the Caribbean.

I’m working on a longer version of this blog post for a scholarly publication – more details to come!