Yarico: Staging slavery in 1999

Jane Bryce on the musical production that tackles a subject usually avoided in Barbados- slavery

“Inkle”, played by Niall Stones. Photograph by Corrie Scott/ Holders Season“Yarico” and “Inkle” fall in love. Photograph by Corrie Scott/ Holders SeasonA reprint of the original 1787 poster for the Holders Season 1997Actors and singers perform on the grounds of Holders House, during the 1999 presentation of Yarico: the musical. Photograph by Corrie Scott/ Holders SeasonHolders SeasonMembers of the Yarico cast end a segment of the show with song and dance. Photograph by Corrie Scott/ Holders SeasonPeriod costumes in Yarico: the musical. Photograph by Corrie Scott/ Holders SeasonThe ill-fated couple, worlds apart in Barbados. Photograph by Corrie Scott/ Holders Season

Barbados: just beyond your imagination. The tourism slogan works by subtle provocation. We think we already know about the place — tropical paradise, playground for the rich and glamorous, romantic setting for lovers and newly-weds, home to some of the West Indies’ greatest cricketers, and more recently, alternative Carnival venue with its own brand of soca to rival Trinidad’s. But the slogan hints at something unknown, enticing, mysterious, something which exceeds the brochure images of beaches and palm trees. It invites us to come and discover for ourselves the secret ingredient for the perfect holiday. What that is, however, can never be determined. It resides in the realm of fantasy (just beyond imagination), so each of us supplies it out of our own needs and repressed desires.

Yet there is something beneath the surface story of happy natives, a well-regulated welfare system and a friendly setting for offshore banking. As everywhere in the Caribbean, the sub-text is slavery, no longer visible except in monuments like Barbados’s “Bussa” statue in memory of a 19th-century slave revolt, but part of a largely unspoken collective trauma, no less painful for being repressed.

Visit any of the island’s great houses, and you’ll be invited to admire antique mahogany furniture, colonial architecture and gracious gardens. Of the slave labour which made and underpinned all this, there is scarcely a trace. If you know where to look and what you’re looking for, you can still find slave huts in the outlying parishes, but these are off the beaten track. Other traces — old photographs of the island as it was less than a century ago — are scattered, and nowhere is there a coherent storyline to set against the dominant history of white ownership and control.

Not, of course, that this version of history goes unchallenged in the island. The University of the West Indies (UWI) and the government have both made strenuous efforts to tell the other side of the story, one through its history courses, the other through its current focus on National Heroes, of whom Bussa is one. Yet the real cost in human terms is hard to reconstruct from the evidence available to a casual onlooker or visitor. Just beyond your imagination is escape, relaxation and the indulgence of your senses. Why trouble yourself with a tortured past when the present has so much to offer?

Since 1993, one of the island’s attractions has been the annual Holders Season, a cultural event which is now firmly on the world map for music lovers and opera buffs. Once a year, the gardens of a modest 18th-century plantation house are transformed into a magical setting for some of the best-loved operas (Verdi, Puccini, Mozart), drama (Shakespeare), even, in 1997, a concert featuring Luciano Pavarotti. As moonlight filters through the branches of ancient mahogany trees and wind rustles the palm fronds, the Holders audience chink their champagne glasses and settle down for another evening of spectacular entertainment. But even as the Holders Season is acknowledged as an international success, the question arises: what is its relevance to the cultural life of the island and the Caribbean?

Holders House is the home of John and Wendy Kidd, an English couple who live in Barbados a few months a year. They started out with the commendable objective of contributing something to the “tourism product” of the island, and started the then Holders Opera Festival in conjunction with the Barbados Tourism Authority. It rapidly became a business in its own right, attracting sponsorship and consumers, but ultimately losing money because of the ambition of its productions and the cost of staging them.

A year and a half ago, this occasioned a radical rethink of the whole project: whether to scale it down, or to continue a lavish tradition and aim for export. The Season, which had begun as a showcase for imported talent, was revamped as a creative forcing ground for local artists, in combination with foreign expertise and resources. In 1997 the Holders Band was formed as an elite group of the best local musicians and composers (among them saxophonist Arturo Tappin and singer Tamara Marshall), and this year, sponsorship by the charismatic Richard Branson lent a whole new élan to the occasion. But the main event of this year’s Season, which also featured a Caribbean Tempest, currently on tour in Europe, was Yarico: the musical, an experiment, a risk, and a hoped-for money-spinner, which raised many of the issues of slavery and its legacy which I have alluded to already.

Yarico: the musical grew out of a previous (1997) production of the recently rediscovered 18th-century operetta, Inkle and Yarico. The original libretto by George Coleman the Younger, and the score by Dr Samuel Arnold, were both unearthed by Barbadian writer and historical enthusiast Kevyn Arthur, in a library in the US. Arthur brought them home and offered them to the Kidds for the first production since 1830.

Yarico is the story of the love affair between Inkle, an English merchant shipwrecked in Venezuela, and Yarico, the Amerindian princess who rescues him, accompanies him to Barbados and is there sold by him as a slave. The 18th-century opera had a happy ending, which was taken up by the production and elaborated, according to Holders publicity, by the addition of “contemporary music . . . fire-eaters and stiltsmen, a steel band and exotic dancers” into “a carnival (which) happily unites the cast and audience, and two hundred years of show business.”

John Kidd, who refers to this production as “a curiosity for locals”, decided to investigate the possibility of turning it into a musical, and struck lucky when he turned to Disney International’s Theatre Director, Martyn Hayes, for advice. Hayes agreed that it had potential, and suggested who to contact. As a result, says Kidd, he ended up with “the A team” — Paul Leigh, regarded as one of the foremost musical theatre lyricists, and James McConnell, who wrote the music. Most importantly, the happy ending was abandoned in favour of a more realistic and tougher conclusion, with Inkle returning to look for Yarico, who first repudiates him, then offers him a chance to redeem himself by rescuing her daughter from the plantation where she was born after Inkle sold her mother.

The night I saw the show, I went in the usual spirit of sensual indulgence, seduced as always by the warm air, star-spattered sky and gracious surroundings. Halfway through the first act, I turned to my companion and asked in a whisper if it was as good as I thought it was. The early part of the show is witty, intriguing and stylish, starting with a performance of the 18th-century opera, happy ending and all, which provokes a conversation between the abolitionist, William Wilberforce, and Inkle himself, confessing the truth of the story after 25 years of silence.

Wilberforce provides an onstage commentary to the action which follows, depicting Inkle and his fiancée setting out for Barbados in 1762, each with their own version of the “just beyond your imagination” fantasy. For Inkle the entrepreneur and early capitalist, it is the dream that “All the markets of the world will tremble/At the name of Inkle and Co.”, wittily subsuming the name which actually resounds through history, that of Yarico. This is nicely counterpoised with his fiancée’s enduring fantasy of exotic romance that “sailing to the Indies” will bring to life.

The split-level stage was used to advantage, as the deck of the ship during the storm, and then as the platform for the first appearance of Yarico. The Holders stage incorporates a little bluff crowned by a pergola, and framed by palm trees with a backdrop of floodlit branches. Out of this backdrop Yarico emerges, in a simple green sheath with a headdress of green peacock feathers which exactly reproduces the effect of the palm fronds behind her, looking like an emanation of the rain forest itself.

The effect was breathtaking, but the moment I turned to my friend was the moment she began to sing. Suddenly a complacent, predictable story of colonial adventure shifted onto another plane. Yarico, sung by Natalie Tinn — one of the young stars of London musical theatre — was obviously meant to be more than the exotic object of a repressed Englishman’s sexual fantasy. She was the other story, the unsung, unspoken sub-text to the whole sorry history of colonial exploitation. Never mind authenticity (peacock feathers in Venezuela?), her voice, her presence, her whole demeanour spoke to an otherness which was deeply moving: “The ghost-men come/From across the water/with their sticks of fire . . . What will pay for the heart of the hunter?/The heart of the ghost-man/What will pay for the bellies of the children?/The belly of the ghost-man.”

Knife uplifted, poised to perform the sacrifice which would save the tribe, she looks down and in her moment of hesitation, is lost. It could have been embarrassing, it could have foundered in mawkish sentimentality or romantic cliché. Instead, it was a chilling and convincing representation of cultural transcendence and betrayal, passion played out in the face of stifling conventionality, feminine power crushed by a cynical patriarchal structure.

Whether Yarico: the musical will achieve the same kind of impact outside the Caribbean remains to be seen. John Kidd feels its greatest asset is that it is more than a few good songs repeated, and the consistency of its musical quality may carry it for foreign audiences. Where songs are repeated, they are more than just a reprise — they are lent new meaning through their context, as when Yarico, now all at sea in Barbados, laments the changes that have come over Inkle and their love for each other. The words she sings recall the earlier duet between her and Inkle, when he taught her to name the world in his language, her voice following his but investing each word with wonder and discovery: “Earth/sky/stone/Falling to the ocean/This is the night/Those are the stars/Shining on the ocean”. The tenderness of his discovery of her — “These are your hands/This is your mouth/These are your eyes” — hovers behind her bewildered repetition: “Nothing is as it was before . . . Hands/ lips/eyes/The same and not the same/What has changed?/Is it me?/Am I not what he wants me to be?”

The pain of mutual incomprehension following passion speaks to any audience, but is made unbearably poignant here, as we watch Yarico being relegated to the status of sub-human object. Where before she liberated him, now his society imprisons her in its own preconceptions. The moment when Inkle is cautioned by a well-wisher against confusing Yarico “with any human female of your acquaintance” is shocking to an audience which has hitherto been witness to her humanity. On stage, before our eyes, the process of dehumanisation which underpinned slavery is enacted, and we are forced to sit and be a party to it, as trapped as she is. The fact that the production’s sympathy is undoubtedly with Yarico heightens the tension for the audience, who know that history is against her. Her predicament is insoluble, since in the colonial context she is no more than a commodity, like sugar, rum — or chocolate.

The Barbados audience is not accustomed to seeing the issue of miscegenation addressed as explicitly and brutally as it is in this production. It is one of the well-guarded secrets of slavery that everybody knows but tacitly agrees not to talk about. Here, on the contrary, Inkle’s ex-fiancée’s brother persuades him to sell Yarico with the words: “What’s as nice as a little bit of chocolate/Handle it too much/And everything you touch/Soon will show that tell-tale chocolate trace/Once it’s on your fingers/How that chocolate lingers/A little bit of chocolate’s best kept in its place.”

The various conflicts, between passion and polite society, love and expediency, humanity and capitalist greed, feminine helplessness and masculine power, are seen to be part of a structure of racial and sexual oppression which overwhelms individual resistance. Yarico’s threat to the society ladies — “I will feed their eyes to ravens/I will wear their bones as trinkets/I will pluck out their living heart” — has great passion but no efficacy. Instead, she is excluded from the circle of polite society, symbolised by the wedding song Spirit eternal, and relegated to the status of slave, while her new owner throws her lover a bag of money with the words, “You’re a free man now, Mr Inkle.”

Counterpoised with this painful enactment of betrayal is the slave chorus, with its ironic anthem “Thank you for your civilisation/We’re the luckiest folk alive”, and the parliamentary debates over the abolition of slavery. Again, the rhetoric of reason, commerce, civilisation and religion weighs in against the recognition of the inhumanity of slavery.

Barbadian calypsonian John King articulates both its collective and individual effects in the song Give me my name, which echoes the earlier naming song between Inkle and Yarico. The finale which closes the (much less interesting) second act makes the connection between past and present by switching into contemporary idiom, as Adisa Andwele (local poet and composer, and Holders Entertainment Co-ordinator) performs a dub version of the final song, Come, let we dance and sing.

While it’s true that, for most Barbadians, tickets to the Holders events are out of reach and the Season is mostly seen as a “white people thing”, the Holders management have tried to counteract this. There is free access to school groups for previews, and free tickets are available on request to individuals who want to come but can’t pay. There is also an increasing emphasis on and sensitivity to local culture, compared to the first year, when the MC announced the National Anthem with the words “I didn’t know Barbados had a National Anthem.”

With the aim of supporting local talent, the Kidds have established a Centre for the Performing Arts, of which the Holders Band is the first project. Adisa Andwele believes that not only are more Bajans attending performances during the Season, but that they comprise the majority of the audience for off-Season events, such as last year’s 50th birthday concert for local calypso monarch, Gabby. Holders’ new recording studio is available to local artists, and last year there was a festival in honour of the (now deceased) calypso legend Roaring Lion. Both Inkle and Yarico (the opera) and this year’s Caribbean Tempest feature local music styles, from folk-songs to tuk to pan and calypso.

The move from opera to musical theatre of the Lloyd Webber school may also help to change perceptions of the elitism of the event, though, for historian Kevyn Arthur, the drive towards a more popular market has imposed a particular formula on the material, however “slick and professional” the performance, or “brilliant, witty and clever” the songs. He does concede, however, that the production, now being reworked for the overseas market, does address the issue of slavery in a provocative and complex way. “Bajans”, says Arthur, “don’t want to see anything to do with slavery, black and white, etc.”, unless it rehearses the pieties of black heroism and suffering.

While Yarico: the musical certainly does not shy away from these, it also demonstrates the terrible dilemma faced by Inkle when ostracised by Barbados society and unable to work. When confronted by his slave daughter at the end, Inkle’s words, “There’s a slavery far worse/Of the feelings, of the spirit, of the senses”, and his plea to her for help, convey the pathos of loss, and the price he himself has paid for his actions.

If the musical is an overseas success, ironically, it may prompt more local people to see it. If this has the effect of injecting some fresh thinking into the vexed slavery issue, Yarico: the musical will have earned its claim to cultural relevance.