YARICO

 

Come and find me, Mr Inkle, when you can say there are no more slaves. Then, perhaps, you will be fit to face your child.

 

‘as near perfect a musical as you can get’
Paul Vale THE STAGE

Want to perform or produce YARICO?

Read an extract from YARICO here

 

first performed by Suzanne Ahmet, Tori Allen-Martin, Keisha Amponsa Banson, Liberty Buckland, Charlotte E Hamblin, Michael Mahony, Melanie Marshall, Michael Moulton, Alex Spinney, Adam Vaughan and Jean-Luke Worrell

musicians Chris Brice, Nicholas Chave, Molly Lopresti, Zara Nunn

(more than 17 characters, to be performed by 11 or more actors)

book and lyrics by Carl Miller
music by James McConnel
additional lyrics by Paul Leigh
directed by Emily Gray
musical director and orchestrations Zara Nunn
choreographer Jeanefer Jean-Charles
designed by Sarah Beaton
lighting design by Matt Haskins
assistant director Alex Pearson
stage manager Jo Abram
assistant stage manager Louise Smiley
casting director Samuel Julyan
production manager Anthony Norris Watson
general management Crow & Elk

Some thoughts on Yarico

Stories of slavery are stories about individuals with names and identities, though European accounts usually fail to record them. Tantalisingly we do know the name Yarico, which appears in a book written nearly five hundred years ago: A true and exact history of the island of Barbadoes… Illustrated with a map of the island… The principal trees and plants there… Together with the ingenio… That’s Spanish for ‘engine’ – the engine that makes the sugar. The book claims to explain: ‘The whole process of sugarmaking…  The grinding room, the boiling room, the filling room, the curing house, still house…’

The book is by Richard Ligon, ‘Gentleman of London’. He travels to Barbados in 1647 to make his fortune, then, back in London ten years later, publishes this book about the island, presumably also to make money. One hundred and twenty-two pages of small print – and on page fifty-five he mentions Yarico as one of the island’s ‘Indians’: ‘we have but few, and those fetched from other countries – some from the neighbouring islands, some from the main – which we make slaves.’ Because of course the profits of Ligon’s ‘whole process of sugarmaking’ depend upon slavery.

Ligon tells us little about Yarico. His interest in her is to play a role in an anecdote about an ‘Indian Maid’ who falls in love at first sight with a young Englishman and helps him hide in safety on the island. But then – as Ligon tells it –  ‘The youth when he came ashore in Barbados forgot the kindness of the poor maid that had ventured her life for his safety, and sold her for a slave. And so poor Yarico, for her love, lost her liberty.’

Half a century after Ligon, in 1711, Irish essayist Richard Steele embellishes the story of Yarico in issue 11 of The Spectator, giving her treacherous lover a name and showing drily ironic disdain for his profit-seeking: ‘Mister Thomas Inkle began seriously to reflect upon his loss of time, and to weigh with himself how many days’ interest of his money he had lost during his stay with Yarico. This thought made the young man very pensive. Upon which considerations, the prudent and frugal young man sold Yarico to a Barbadian merchant’.

Steele also profited from slavery in Barbados: he had recently sold off a plantation there he inherited after his wife died. His Yarico story stresses the faithlessness of men compared to women, more than the monstrosity of slavery – it is told to rebut another tale about about a faithless wife. And many poems written in Yarico’s voice by (mainly female) writers in the eighteenth century also used her story to symbolise men’s mistreatment of women.

British theatre censorship made overt political commentary risky in the Eighteenth Century. (Another irony: George Colman, who wrote the words for Inkle and Yarico – the most famous dramatic version of the story – ended up being the theatre censor himself later in life…) So poetry and non-fiction – particularly the autobiographies of people who had been enslaved – were much more overt in addressing the slave trade than the theatre. The first dramatic version of the Yarico story from 1742 suggests that plays published for reading were able to be more explicitly political than those allowed on stage. But it seems that from the 1750s onwards, theatres did respond to doubts about the slave trade. The very popular play Oroonoko (written in 1695, adapted from Aphra Behn’s 1688 novel) was rewritten in the 1750s to introduce scenes of cruel slave owners. An unperformed version of Oroonoko from 1760 explicitly discusses arguments for and against slavery.

By the late Eighteenth Century a significant Black population of many thousands existed in London, and Black characters were popular on stage. But these were played by white actors blacked up and tended to be either ‘noble princes and princesses’ or comic caricatures. These representations of self-denying faithful servants speaking a highly stereotyped dialect now read as irredeemably racist. Given the way pro-slavery ideology dehumanised non-white people, however, it may be that some of those representations did increase empathy with those who were enslaved, in some way contributing to abolitionist sentiments. This falls far short of respecting all human beings as equal, however. There are accounts of Jewish and Scottish theatre-goers being abused by other audience members, at the same time as arguably sympathetic (or comic-sympathetic) Jewish and Scottish characters were presented on stage and I imagine there were comparable issues for London’s Black theatregoers. Scottish, Irish and Jewish audience members complained about their stereotypical representation in some plays and I wonder about a double standard in which white audience members found fictional Black people more ‘acceptable’ (on stage acted by white actors) than real life human beings?

Thomas Bellamy’s The Benevolent Planters, staged by George Colman at the same Haymarket Theatre as Inkle and Yarico two years later, is pretty much a pro-slavery play, and I don’t think there’s any record of Colman supporting the anti-slavery movement. He just knew that a popular theatre needed topical material. The unappealing Colman arguably nicked the idea for doing a comic play on Inkle and Yarico from another writer who sent him his play a few months before he put on his own. Plus the son of Samuel Arnold (who wrote the music for Inkle and Yarico) had Colman arrested for not paying back the huge debts Colman had run up. So Yarico has a dodgy theatre producer in her history…

Whatever Colman’s motives in writing and producing Inkle and Yarico, it profitably rode the wave of the abolitionist movement from the late 1780s to the 1810s. Did the comic opera spur audiences to greater sympathy for those, like Yarico, sold into slavery by Englishmen? Or did the topicality of the debate simply make it a smart piece of commercial programming? Certainly Yarico’s story became associated with the abolitionist movement, and by creating a popular version of it, Colman and Arnold (maybe despite themselves) spread the story to its largest audience yet.