“I'm sad to say, I'm on my way / Won't be back for many a day / My heart is down, my head is turning around / I had to leave a little girl in Kingston town”
If you’ve ever been to Jamaica as a tourist, hearing Harry Belafonte’s famous Jamaica Farewell might make you nostalgic to return. Debra Ehrhardt’s Jamaica Farewell, which was the featured performance at the Colony Theatre in Burbank on December 9th, 2006 for the ninth annual celebration of the Los Angeles-based Jamaica Cultural Alliance, tells a different goodbye story.
An uproarious, autobiographical tale of a young woman’s irrepressible desire to migrate away from Jamaica, leaving her own little girlhood behind, Ehrhardt’s inspired performance makes you laugh and cry and applaud the persistence of the human spirit. “In America, everybody can have everything, if they want it…Ever since I was seven years old, all I wanted was to come to America…” performer/playwright Debra Ehrhardt confesses in her simply staged one-woman tour de force about her madcap journey to America in the 1970s, a revolutionary period in Jamaican history.
Jamaica may be the “blue emerald of the Caribbean,” fragrant with honeysuckle and ocean breezes, but all Debra wanted was to trade that shimmering, sensual gem for the American candy land of “moon pies and Baby Ruths” and “stores the size of Jamaica.” If that sounds like a child’s fantasy, it is. Yet at its core the play tracks the serious business of a child holding onto her dreams, trying to heal her wounded heart. Daddy drinks, mommy makes do, and Debra dreams about America. When she graduates from high school, she’s admitted to the University of Florida’s nursing program. After several defeated attempts to obtain a visa, including one where she poses as a nun (hilariously re-enacted complete with appropriate sound track of the embassy’s rejection stamp), Debra settles reluctantly into a job at a friend of the family’s textile company in Kingston.
Meanwhile, socialist-leaning Michael Manley has come to power and the Jamaican polity trembles with change and conflict. “Every thug has a gun,” asserts Ehrhardt. When the US government bans travel to Jamaica, Debra muses that “everything is possible in America, the problem is getting there.” Enter the character of CIA operative Jack Wallingsford - “My new ticket to America.” He can walk through security without hassle. Debra thinks all she has to do is convince Jack to take her on a trip, but why and how?The answer comes in the form of a smuggling scheme: her employer needs someone to take one million dollars out of the country. He can get a visa and he’ll pay any fool willing to take the risk. Debra volunteers. She arranges to meet Jack for dinner, fabricating a “business trip” to Miami her boss is sending her on, and counting on her sex appeal to invite her to travel with him. The ploy works. Now she just has to make it to the airport and through security - with a million US dollars hidden in her bag! - and say goodbye to her family.Underneath the comedy is depth of emotion tapped most poignantly in the scenes Debra enacts about her father, a man whose drunkenness Debra wisely refuses to use to blunt our sympathy for him or the strength of her love. When she declares, just before the short blackout that precedes the final escape story, that she’s an “expert at forgiving” her Dad, we understand the true cost of leaving one’s home behind, even if to pursue a long-awaited dream. I saw the show with a mostly Jamaican audience and, at that moment, you could feel their collective memories come together in a shared sense of loss and bereavement. Such feelings ought to sober everyone with a stake in today’s debates about immigration enough to recognize that while dreams of a better life still pull many to American shores, great personal and social upheavals all too-frequently drive people away from their homes.Under Monique Lai’s skillful, yet unobtrusive direction on an almost bare stage, Ehrhardt inhabits a cast of characters with humor and grace, taking her audience on an unforgettable journey through familial struggles interlaced with vignettes from the island’s own political and cultural past.